Fear Not the Friendly Robot

As I read about the first robot that rang the Nasdaq bell to kick off the robotics industry stock index, I instantly remembered a man who spoke up after Dale’s presentation during Q&A at the first-ever East Bay Mini Maker Faire.


Standing awkwardly near the door, he identified himself as a warehouse union worker speaking on behalf of his many colleagues who were fearful about the increasing use of robots. “They’re going to take away our jobs. What do you do when you have to raise a family and pay your mortgage? And it’s not like the technology is easy to understand. I’ve tried to read up on it but it’s hard to pick up as a new skill. You have all this new technology coming in but there are people who don’t understand it and they’re losing their jobs because of it. The technology is new but you have the same family, the same mortgage. What do you have to say about that?”

I empathized with the fear of losing one’s job yet I found the increasing use of robots in everyday life to some degree comforting. My aunt was a union worker who toiled under intense work conditions.  After several years, like many of her colleagues, she had to go on disability as a result of slowly deteriorating her joints on the job.  She had to undergo painful surgery, her employer had to pay expensive worker’s comp costs in addition to spending the time and money required to replace a good employee. Everyone lost.

Robots are being built and tested to execute jobs that are too dangerous, injurious, inconvenient, or nearly impossible for humans.  Like any well-designed technology, robots are meant to make life better in some way, whether it’s safer, more convenient, or more enhanced.

Meet Leonardo1 Robot, created by Martin Wojtczyk, in partnership with Bayer Healthcare, Institut für Klinische Chemie und Pathobiochemie am Klinikum rechts der Isar der TU München, and Festo Didactic.
Meet Leonardo1 Robot, created by Martin Wojtczyk, in partnership with Bayer Healthcare and TU München.

When a company replaces humans with robots, workers can take up more advanced or fulfilling jobs given the proper training, companies can see increased production, and consumers may experience lower prices as a result of operating efficiency.  Workers are no longer bound to a job that can cause permanent injuries, freeing them to explore whatever it is they were placed on this earth to be. Not just to be “two legs and two hands” to labor but to create and express.

The Maker Movement, an uprising of individual ideas and expression, would welcome anyone with open arms. It is not exclusively technology oriented but includes anyone and everyone from all walks of life.  David T. Lang, once unemployed then became co-founder of OpenROV, wrote a book about his journey and how to join the maker movement.

David Lang and Eric Stackpole explain the inner dynamics of their underwater robot, OpenROV, at this year's East Bay Mini Maker Faire in Oakland, California.
David Lang and Eric Stackpole explain the inner dynamics of their underwater robot, OpenROV, at this year’s East Bay Mini Maker Faire in Oakland, California.
OpenROV made its humble beginnings on Kickstarter.com, a crowdsourcing platform.
OpenROV made its humble beginnings on Kickstarter.com, a crowdsourcing platform.

As software continues to enhance all facets of everyday life, the new economy will be one driven not by labor itself but by the powerful minds and creativity of humankind. Thank goodness the tech industry is arguably the most democratic and progressive. With more and more tech events offering free passes to anyone interested, Maker Faires sprouting to more and more cities all over the world, and free high-quality classes offered online through sites like UdemyCodecademyUdacity, and Coursera, anyone can be anything they want to.

Find the Maker in You.
Find the Maker in You.

LEGO Mindstorms EV3 More Than a Toy

This robot, built from the rubble of the Mindstorms EV3 kit, can recognize objects in its environment and balance on two wheels on its own.

Long ago when I was in elementary school I often saw colorful LEGO bricks scattered throughout the play corners of my classrooms.  But I never did see anyone build anything out of them other than small, incomplete rectangular blocks of reds, blues, and yellows.  These sadly splayed little plastic bricks never did catch my interest as a kid as I darted for the great outdoors on my bike instead.  Fast forward to my adulthood and I married one of LEGOs biggest fans.  When the much awaited Mindstorms EV3 robotics kit arrived at our doorstep my husband’s eyes lit up in sheer delight.  As I curiously watched him from afar excitedly unwrap all three boxes and the many little plastic bags inside containing hundreds of pieces I couldn’t help but come a little closer to take a look, drawn by his infectious enthusiasm.  I was also curious to discover how the mind boggling mess of so many tiny pieces could come together to form a robot he was so looking forward to build.

As Martin noticed that I was watching him meticulously compartmentalize and organize everything, he then invited me to build something with him.  Ok sure, why not?  I’ve often discovered that when life offers a new experience that piques my curiosity for whatever reason I better take it because it usually leads to a nice surprise, like finding that cool toy inside a Cracker Jack box.  The cool surprises I discovered after hours of learning, laughing, building, and working together with Martin was a deeper understanding and appreciation of the engineering discipline as well as how the childhood toys that became our closest companions cultivated our skills through adulthood.

The EV3 set is much more than just the colored bricks I remember from elementary school.  It has evolved to include highly varied and detailed parts like studs, girders, and beams, some of which look similar to each other.  I learned that when I put in one piece the wrong way I could compromise the entire structure.  Then I realized a fundamental truth about engineering.  This discipline requires you to pay attention to the smallest details all the way.  There is no improvising or else you weaken the integrity of your creation.  Everything is deliberate and every building block has its place and purpose.  Engineering is not like cooking, social work, or some situations in business where at times you have to improvise and be quick on your feet.  Another fundamental difference I realized between the engineering field whence Martin came and the social work discipline I studied is the dimension and orientation of time.  Whereas a social worker’s job is to dig into the past to deconstruct a problem to find a solution, an engineer’s job is to build something to use for the future.  This is one reality I see and love time and time again when I attend technology conferences, meetups, and events with Martin.  Technology is solutions-based with a focus on the future.  It survives and thrives on creating solutions, whether for work, home, or play.

We also came to a surprising realization that some of our childhood companions cultivated some of our best skills today.  During our building time Martin shared that as a kid he loved his LEGO sets so much he could spend hours with them.  Guided by interest alone he eventually went on to study computer science and robotics, graduating with a Ph.D in Informatics.  As a kid I had varied interests but remember receiving a lot of journals as gifts.  I was a journal magnet.  When new neighbors moved in they would give me journals.  Relatives, friends, coworkers continued to shower me with journals for holidays, birthdays, and graduations.  I never asked for them but they kept coming my way.  So I filled these journals with the days of my life and went on to ace every paper throughout my education, convince the greater powers that be, and touch hearts in written word to this day.

The LEGO Mindstorms EV3 robotics kit is more than a toy.  For me it has served to open yet another door into the culture and modi operandi of engineers building our future.

My nephew loves to build anything from jets to pirate ships. His current project is a treehouse. A real treehouse.


Google’s Sandbox Boutique

glass day_revised
Martin on Glass Day: “Ok Glass, take a picture!”

Google continues to wow the world.  First through search, then ads, then sweet-toothed versions of Androids, and now the coolest looking wearable computing device around.   During last year’s Google I/O conference, Sergey and his team of skydiving stuntmen succeeded in seducing interested attendees in forking over US$1500 a pop for a pair they can pick up a year later.  With the Apple I raking in over US$600,000 at an auction, what developer wouldn’t grab a pair for the prospects of developing something cool and the device itself increasing in value?  Indeed, those selected to purchase and test the new product were affectionately called Google Glass Explorers.  As the first few ones were released in early 2013, the media never failed to cover a story on it.  A pretty price tag along with the Google brand name commands respect and attention.  I mean come on – if something brand spanking new came out would you really bother to turn your head for a piece of titanium that you can just conveniently pick up at your local Wal-Mart?  People like and want a challenge and there are certainly challenges now for the regular Joe Schmo in obtaining a pair of Google Glass.  It’s not available for the mass market yet, unless you’re a friend of an Explorer.  What a titillating reality.  All this hype on the market tantalizing your desires but you can’t have it – yet.   You can enviously watch and listen to people who have been selected but you can’t buy it.  One of the good reasons behind this is to continually garner feedback for further product development.

As a Google Glass Explorer, Martin was extended an invitation to visit Google’s campus to pick up his pair back in May.  He could bring one guest along with him and he asked me so I jumped on the opportunity to see how the tech titan was rolling out its new baby to their Explorers.  Watching its grand debut at last year’s  I/O conference with Sergey Brin and his team of skydivers I was curious about the next steps of its product development.  Little did I suspect that a sandbox boutique would be in the works.

google glass at awe 2013_800

From service to packaging, Google Glass screamed first class startup all the way.  As we approached a designated area on the beautifully green Google headquarters one Saturday afternoon we were greeted by three young trendily dressed individuals wearing different shades of Glass.  Perhaps they wouldn’t have looked so cool if they weren’t wearing them.  I honestly have to personally admit that the design is nothing short of awesome though at that moment I still had no compelling reason to buy another pair myself even if the opportunity was there (and it wasn’t).  One of the three Glass Guides, a friendly young woman named Grace was wearing a pair in the sky blue shade, introduced herself and walked us into the nearby building.  As I stepped in I felt as if I had walked into a haute couture optical boutique hand held by a personal shopper.  We were then offered a choice of champagne, mimosa, beer, soda, sparkling or still water.  And water in glass bottles – thank you very much.  Some cookies, pastries, fruit, and other snacks were also offered.   Directly in front of us was an attractive, modern, mirrored white stand holding the full color spectrum of Google Glass.  Grace invited us to try them all on.  Grace then invited us to sit at one of several islands of large white tables with bar stool-style chairs.  She presented us with a nice box that opened like a book.  As Martin opened the cover the device was sealed inside under a special film-like paper.  The box even came with a nice shopping bag, like the ones you get coming out of Hermes or Prada or some other thousand-dollar haute couture boutique.  Throughout the afternoon Grace helped with fitting adjustments and synchronizing the device with Martin’s google account, from most commonly contacted phone numbers to gmail.  I was beginning to be impressed at how much more convenient life would be with Glass.  The appointment came to an end after about 3-4 hours after which two other Glass Guides escorted us on a tour of the campus.  Throughout the walk we tried some of the features of Glass – taking pictures, taking videos, making phone calls from my phone to Glass, text, and email.  But my most favorite feature is the driving navigation I used on the way home.  Glass gave me clear, audible turn-by-turn directions.  By wearing a pair while driving, I didn’t have to take my eyes off the road for more than a second and I could answer phone calls without taking my hands off the steering wheel.

Experiencing Google’s sandbox boutique was a pleasant surprise.  It reminded me somewhat of being in an Apple store to which customers have favorably responded.  Learning of varied reactions to the wearable computing device, Glass boutiques as well as an adjusted price might be critical in providing access as well as inviting the mass market to buy in.  Late last week Martin and I attended our first SF Hardware Meetup at the beautiful Bloomberg Beta office located at Embarcadero’s Pier 3.  After listening to a good number of pitches some socializing and networking naturally followed.  When speaking with a few people the subject of Glass popped up.  “Would you buy a pair for yourself?” I curiously asked.  Surprisingly at this hardware meetup most people wouldn’t.  A common reason cited was that it would be a little too standoffish to wear day to day.  “I just wouldn’t want to wear it in public. It’s just a little ugly and kind of expensive,” a recent Stanford graduate bluntly commented.  But when asked if he has ever tried one on himself he said no.  This is a common reaction I’ve encountered from a few folks in and out of the meetup – those who would rather do without a pair has never tried one on.  The random strangers who have chimed into our private lives and were given the opportunity to briefly try a pair on however were completely wowed.  Many might be curious about Google Glass but without trying one on and experiencing its features they might not want to open their purse strings.  I myself didn’t care too much about the controversial wearable computing device but changed my mind after the personal consultation with Grace as well as using a pair for driving navigation purposes.  It’s understandable how difficult it would be dropping $1500 cold hard cash for something one has never bonded with.  Let’s hope Google will someday roll out retail Glass shops similar to the sandbox boutique I walked into that sunny Saturday afternoon, with mimosa and tasty nibbles on hand.  With stellar product design, robust functionality, highly personalized customer service, and the right pricing strategy, a Glass boutique might just do the trick in seducing ambivalent customers in buying a pair or more.

glass at awe 2013_2
Glass Explorers from around the world at AWE 2013 surrounded by curious attendees.

Group Chat with Dropbox Founder and CEO Drew Houston

To consummate a whirlwind weekend of Y Combinator-organized Startup School Martin and I headed over to the Dropbox office during Open House to personally congratulate Drew Houston on the company’s success and learn from the founder himself about his experience in building a startup.


We were blown away not only by the graciousness of the staff but the humility of the founder who had built an organization with a valuation of $4 billion.  Since visiting the smaller Dropbox office two years ago we were pleased to see that the spirit and culture of the startup had not changed despite its growth and success.  Upon entering the office on the 11th floor, we noticed the familiar glass-enclosed meeting room furnished with a large wooden conference table, chairs, a white piano, an awesome drum set, and guitars brought alive through jam sessions every Friday.  We didn’t see any enclosed personal offices or cubicles.  The engineering floor was a wide-open field of desks and monitors to foster an environment of honesty, creativity, and collaboration. Rather than beer and red plastic cups two years ago at their evening after party, Dropbox upgraded to providing their visitors with a diverse spread of specialty sandwiches, roasted vegetables with gourmet red sauce, fresh fruit, cheeses, pastries, and luxurious libations including teas, sodas, liqueurs, juices, and fruit-infused water. Dropbox’s fun, hard-working, and all around nice-person culture hadn’t changed much.  They just got bigger and fancier.

We located Drew seated at a small roundtable in the kitchen surrounded by other visitors.  We popped by to congratulate him on the company’s success and joined the fireside chat. The following are main points we gleaned from his experience in building Dropbox:

  • Personally commit to your customers and investors
  • Provide a solution to a problem people are experiencing
  • Surround yourself with supportive, like-minded people
  • Dropbox hires the best engineers from the top schools, who love what they do, and are nice guys to work with
  • As the company grew bigger, Drew needed to focus more on “people stuff”
  • Go to amazon.com and buy the top three rated books and “learn a little bit about a lot” on sales, marketing, finance, accounting, product design, psychology (influence and negotiation), organizational design, management and leadership, and business strategy

Dropbox is growing fast and looking for fun and hard working engineers, regardless of visa status. If you’re looking for a cool opportunity with a great organization led by a likeable and personable CEO, look no further and inquire now at http://dropbox.com/jobs!

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