What’s happening with AI & Robotics in Pittsburgh & Boston
by Jason Costa
Recently, several of us from GGV went to visit a few powerhouse research institutions on the east coast: CMU, MIT, and Harvard. In particular, we were interested in seeing what kind of core research is happening in the fields of Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, and other tangentially related areas. Additionally, we wanted to better understand which individuals are working in each respective field. Needless to say, we saw amazing things during our trip. One of our partners, Jenny Lee, who is at the forefront of investing in Robotics, has written about this landscape extensively before.
More than anything else, we were struck by the focus on applying technology to solve real world problems. There was a pragmatism to the research that we saw — every exploration was meant to solve a problem, and to ultimately make people’s lives better. Furthermore, in the context of each problem, there were specific verticals being targeted: urban planning, healthcare, and logistics, to name a few. Different groups of people were being considered beyond the normal “mass market” — children, seniors, new parents, and so on.
While each research institution has a unique approach to their own work and focus areas, it was neat to see one commonality between them: there’s a great deal of cross-collaboration between schools and disciplines, which leads to very interesting ideas and research.
Some of the research happening in artificial intelligence: computer vision, natural language processing, etc., is truly astonishing. While AI is sure to be disruptive in the short term (many jobs will be automated away and displaced), in the long run it’s going to be an absolute game changer.
There were particular areas of focus that we saw in play for AI, specifically: autonomy and cognitive assistance. For autonomy, the primary emphasis was on self-driving vehicles. There were some incredible examples of this happening at the National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC), where CMU is building some amazing self-driving vehicles — with the possibility that these cars will even go off road someday! On the cognitive assistance front, we discussed dialogue systems, Q&A systems, and someday in the future the ability for AI to perform human emotion detection.
On the Robotics front, we saw some incredible examples of autonomous robots performing tasks ranging from disassembling an Oreo cookie to performing medical surgery. One company we met in Boston came out of research done at the MIT Media Lab, and is building a robot that allows for a social & emotional connection with humans. This robot can hold a conversation, perform certain tasks, and react to human input: from scanning the owner’s face and following her around the room, to singing a song for her on request. All providing the owner with a deeper sense of companionship.
At the Self Organizing Systems Research lab within Harvard, we saw swarms of small robots known as “Kilobots” operated via sensor networks, model the behavior of biological systems like social insects and cells. They’re doing this to see what kind of complex tasks can be performed between large numbers of small, cheaper robots; just as is achieved in nature. One could imagine these swarms self-assembling to perform different grasping or locomotion tasks.
Other areas of focus
Though our main intent was to meet with artificial intelligence and robotics companies, some of the applications were outside of this core realm. One company out of CMU, RoBotany, is focused on building indoor vertical farm units, which are orchestrated by automated robots and provide analytics to increase throughput production of crops. Another company, Ori, came out of the Urban Planning section of MIT’s Media Lab and is focused on the challenges of urban density. By making furniture smart and mechanized, suddenly a 200 sq ft apartment could feel like a 600 sq ft space. You can even adjust the furniture by issuing a simple command to Alexa! Another group at MIT CSAIL, called WiTrack, is using Wifi signals and body radio reflections to determine if an elderly person has fallen down in their home, and can alert another human to help.
Again, a laser-like focus on solving problems in the real world, all in an attempt to improve quality of life for large segments of the population. These research institutions, and all of the companies they’ve spawned, are looking to make a tangible impact. This was inspiring to say the least, and we look forward to future visits to these institutions.
Jason Costa is currently an EIR at GGV Capital. This post is part of an ongoing series aimed at exploring topics such as consumer product development, platform analysis, and strategy.