Meet The Roboticist Working To Make Robots Help Us Be More Human
“She cooks, she cleans, and she still finds time to play ball with Elroy,” George and Jane Jetsons’ six-and-a-half-year-old son. Set in the year 2062 and described in the 1960s animated sitcom The Jetsons as an “aluminum-encased, battery-powered robotic maid” who is the “perfect answer for any modern family,” Rosie the Robot takes care of chores around the house while also serving as friend and confidante of mother Jane. Sarcastic and funny, Rosie is a hardworking nanny and aunt figure to children Elroy and Judy.
While many technologies The Jetsons predicted for 2062 have become reality, such as video calls and smart watches, the full realization of robots as the 1960s ideal friend and helper who makes life easier has yet to be fulfilled. For twenty-five years, roboticist Daniel Theobald has been on a mission to create robots that can solve the world’s most pressing problems. But rather than focus solely on making robots be more human, his calling has been to use them to help humans be more human.
The co-founder of Vecna Technologies and Vecna Robotics tells the story of a client who once came to him worried about their aging population. Vecna was one of the only modern robotics companies doing cutting edge work, and they wanted to talk about creating robots to take care of the elderly. Theobald says, “I felt that was completely backwards. Why would we build robots to take care of humans, and send our humans to work in a factory? Robots should be used to do the things that don’t matter. People need real, meaningful work like taking care of each other and the people we love. We should use technology to give us more time to be human, to do more meaningful activities like art, science, caring for the elderly, exploration of the universe, those sorts of things.”
Theobald shared his thoughts on the human side of robotics, building a human-centered business, and the future of robotics.
You co-founded Vecna right after graduate school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology almost a quarter century ago. You’ve said that “starting a company is hard and starting a robotics company is probably one of the hardest.” To what do you attribute the longevity of your company and the success it has achieved?
Daniel Theobald: I founded Vecna Technologies right out of school after working in industry for a brief period of time because I wanted to be part of something meaningful. I actually would have much rather had a career where I worked as a contributor for a great company, but I looked and looked and couldn’t find an organization that I could really get behind, that I could devote my career and life to. After a while I realized that if I was having such a hard time finding a place I wanted to be, there were probably lots of other people who were having similar difficulties.
I felt a responsibility to start something new to create a business that put people first. I disagree with the idea that business exists separate from humanity, that it’s ok to be cutthroat, that making money is the only thing that matters, and you need to maximize shareholder value at any cost. I wanted to create a company where people were the point. Where the customer, employees, the rest of the world were the purpose and focus of what we were doing so we could really make a difference and feel good about it and be financially successful.
At Vecna Technologies we did a broad range of things and were essentially an incubator of ideas. We were involved in healthcare and robotics and all kinds of high-tech science fiction-type stuff. A few years in, the robotics industry finally got to a point where I could see a path towards profitability, and we spun Vecna Robotics out.
I attribute our longevity and our success to super-talented people who care, who are committed to making the world a better place, who are dedicated to their friends and colleagues at work, and truly dedicated to their customers and their success.
What do you feel are the most pressing problems that can be solved by robots, and how should the industry prioritize those problems?
Theobald: Until you’ve tried to build a robot that can do some of the things that humans take for granted, you don’t realize how absolutely amazing human beings are. Our visual abilities, our dexterity, our healing, there are all these things that we take for granted.
I believe that robotics can be one of the great tools for solving the world’s problems. The environment, equality, food scarcity, even happiness in allowing us to focus on being more human than today’s humans working like machines and doing jobs that really should not be done by humans.
One of my startups, Twisted Fields, is an agriculture company solving the big problem of how expensive it is to grow healthy food locally. It’s almost a joke when people talk about Whole Foods, that you need to be rich to shop there. Healthy food is a privilege that we have afforded only to the wealthiest of our species. And the problem is labor. You simply cannot afford to grow healthy food in an environmentally responsible way given the current environment. So, what Twisted Fields is doing is building a completely open-source farming robot. It’s a kind of labor of love of mine, that anyone worldwide could download the plans and assemble one of these robots to help solve this problem. It’s a massively difficult problem and we have a lot of work to do, but already we’re seeing tremendous support and enthusiasm around this idea of using technology to solve some of the most pressing problems facing humanity.
As a founder, you encouraged employees to commit time to community service, up to ten percent of their workweek. What inspired your commitment to corporate service?
Theobald: From day one I had this idea that it was important for us to be giving back, to be committed to community service and building a better world as a business. I’d like to contrast that with what I think is the more accepted norm, which is that you either go into the nonprofit world or you start a for-profit business. On the for-profit side, if someday you’re successful enough that you have a ton of money, then you can do some philanthropy. I wanted instead to set an expectation that every business needs to be in the business of making the world a better place.
I was very proactive about making sure that the people who were giving back were rewarded. It wasn’t formulaic, but I’ve found over the years that people who by their very nature are driven to care about others and give back to the community make the best leaders. They make the best workers. They make the best friends. And those were the type of people who have helped us to be successful as a company.
I got pushback from “Harvard MBAs” who said, “you can’t run a business and pay your employees to do community service ten percent of their time. You’ll throw away so much of your profit that the company won’t survive.” And they were dead wrong. The reason for that is, it’s easy as an MBA to create a spreadsheet and to forget about the human factor and to forget that people are ultimately purpose-driven. Every person gets up in the morning for a purpose, and that purpose is almost never to just make money. So, what I found was that in paying people to perform community service, few people actually did less work. We made it easy for them to see that community service was valuable to them and quite frankly, it was valuable to the business. There is some great research that shows that people who engage in community service are healthier. Our healthcare costs are reduced. Our employees are happier, more fun to be around, they’re more productive, they live longer. And we could argue cause and effect, but I think the result is that when you have a group of people who are committed to giving back to the world, the esprit de corps that generates creates a powerful ability for people to work together effectively and achieve great things that can’t be achieved otherwise.
When you focus on how you can extract as much money from the economy as possible, ultimately, you’re damaging your ability to even do so. When you put people first, when you genuinely care, when you do the right thing even though it’s hard sometimes, in the longer term, I think you will come out ahead.
The result of your own dedicated community service is Mass Robotics, the largest independent non-profit robotics innovation center. What benefits to society have resulted?
Theobald: We started Mass Robotics because we really wanted to help startups not to have to struggle as much as we did. Building robots is hard. It requires machinery, a lot of expertise around sensors, and testing space. It’s really one of the most difficult engineering things you can attempt and one of the most challenging things humanity has ever undertaken.
At Mass Robotics we have three main missions. The first is to help connect entrepreneurs, investors, and real end users to help create a focus on the most pressing problems. Mass Robotics helps to make connections to get people focused on the right things. The second mission is we provide coworking space so startups don’t have to buy their own machine shop equipment, and so they can access expertise in sensors and software to help them. The third mission is about helping the industry move forward. One of the big initiatives I’m very passionate about is the Autonomous Mobile Robots Interoperability Standard, which is a collaboration within the robotics industry to help companies and end users work together in a more open way. This leads to faster adoption of the technology, more growth in the industry, and a broader range of needs met.
This idea of using robotics to make the world a better place is something that I’m very passionate about, and I want to help other companies do that more effectively. So, with my community service hours I’ve mentored other companies, tried to help other people start companies and not make some of the mistakes that I made. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, small ones, big ones. I plan to make a lot more mistakes. One of the important things for success is not being afraid of making mistakes, but obviously taking responsibility for them when you do.
Where do you see the robotics industry of the future and in particular, the integration of robots and humans?
Theobald: It’s a really exciting time. The rhetoric around robots taking jobs from humans has been a popular topic for the press, but the problem with that thinking is it assumes that the world of work is a zero-sum game. That there’s a fixed number of jobs and a fixed number of people to do those jobs. And if a job that used to be done by a human is now done by a robot, then that person is just out of luck. And that’s just not the way the world works. Humans have used technology to provide convenience and efficiency since the beginning of humanity. Learning to build a fire or create a sewing needle are ancient technologies that saved time and improved our ability to take care of one another, for example. Robotics is no different.
I believe that anything that is manufactured, moves, or needs maintenance (I call this the “3 Ms”) will be done with high levels of automation in the future. The way these will be done successfully is through a tight pairing of human and robot capabilities. So, instead of trying to replace a human worker with a robot, you think about how can the automation supercharge the human’s productivity and enjoyment of the work. This is a win-win for everyone.
I wrote an article a few years ago called The Prosperity Chain: How Technology (and robots) Allow Us To Do Good that goes into this in more detail, which is this idea of how we use technology to create prosperity. And if we are a moral society, we use that prosperity then to help more people, which creates a stable society, which then allows more technology to be created. Sometimes that breaks down, with war for example. But if you look at the history of the human race, technology has been the thing that has allowed us to care, to have enough resources to take care of ourselves and one another, to be humane. I think any other characterization of technology needs to be rethought.
Now technology can be used to harm people, obviously. But hopefully as a society we do a good job of mitigating that. On the whole, technology has helped people in indescribably positive ways.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Check out my other columns here.