Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Benioff and Mark Zuckerberg all have something in common other than being billionaires. They all invest in a company called Vicarious, which is taking robotics to a higher, yet more democratic, level.
It’s making robotics a service industry, just like software, with a touch of artificial intelligence (AI).
“Right now, most robotic manufacturing is like getting a computer in 1965 where you needed a custom engineering firm to develop the whole thing,” said Vicarious CEO Scott Phoenix. “And 12 months later, you finally have your computer, and it'll only ever do that one thing. And that's the way robots are today. And we saw an opportunity to change that using an intelligence layer that lets the robot adapt to different tasks and be reused in many different circumstances. And so that's the essence of what Vicarious enables.”
Phoenix calls the Vicarious business model “Robots-as-a-Service,” a play on Software-as-a-Service or SaaS. It works to scale for both sides of the equation.
Here’s how it works.
Suppose an eCommerce company that manufactures and distributes consumer electronics products is facing a spike in orders for the holiday season. Normally, the company can fill orders with humans and a warehouse automation system, but the upcoming order load is too much to deliver on time. Rather than making an investment in buying more automation systems or robots, the Vicarious model allows the company to use its robots for the peak order season and then return them.
And here’s where the AI angle comes in: Each robot configured and programmed by Vicarious is done with the specific engagement in mind. So, the robots delivered to Company A have different capacities and capabilities than the ones delivered to Company B because they have different programming.
Phoenix, who is a tech entrepreneur and can obviously attract big names and big dollars, said he saw the opportunity in robotics because of its limitations. In industrial settings, he saw them basically being limited to auto manufacturing.
He said he sees global trends like shorter product lifespans, frequent changeovers and direct-to-consumer all intensifying the need for intelligent, flexible robotics. Despite the increasing affordability of robot technology, he saw a missing link and spent the last decade building it — a general AI layer that gives robots human-like dexterity and adaptability to new tasks.
That AI layer enables new applications that let new apps be created easily and quickly. For example, Vicarious has built applications for packaging dog toys and makeup, assembling circuit board components, stacking boxes on pallets, sorting objects from conveyors into bins, and tending large metalworking machines all using the same AI library. It has enabled the company to move robotics well beyond the auto industry.
“Factories don't move at exactly the same speed, and the environment doesn't stay exactly the same,” he said. “And so, you really need a brain inside the robot to help it cope with those variations and adjust its plans accordingly. And that's the thing that Vicarious makes. What we enable robots to do is to be much more task agnostic, and much more adaptable within a task. All those things are really flexible changes that are easy to make our software system and our hardware systems work well. AI is the critical ingredient that lets us move from a society where robots are rare and bespoke to a society where robots are commonplace in general purpose.”
The pandemic has brought several changes for the company and its go-to-market approach that have accelerated the trend toward automation. The most important is in keeping people safe.
“When fewer humans are needed, and the more of those humans can be spaced out from each other and separated by robots, the lower your chance of infection,” Phoenix said. “Robots don't get COVID, and they also don't spread COVID. And so, you can protect your workforce by moving towards more automation, and you can also protect your customers by moving towards more automation. So, there's fewer human touches of the products that leave the factory or the warehouse.”
“And the other way the pandemic has accelerated demand for automation is everyone's buying stuff online now, much more so than they were beforehand because going to the store is now a high-risk activity,” he added. “And so, to cope with the increased demand and increased pressure on the supply chain, companies have to look to automation in order to keep up.”
Then there are the concerns about robot job cannibalization versus job creation. Phoenix doesn’t shy away from the issue. He said he believes that an infinite amount of labor involves people doing monotonous tasks for which robots could be more efficient and in turn allow humans to be more productive. That pattern has been in place from the printing press to the cotton gin, and the modern relief of that monotony has been true from the personal computer to more current software innovations. The same will be true, he said, for robots.
“I think every company fundamentally comes down to what gift can you give to your fellow humans,” Phoenix said. “I think the purpose of the corporation is a means for us to provide something that each other wants and to make society better in that way. And so, Vicarious is just one in a sea of these groups trying to help society run more smoothly and to make it easier for humanity to reach a greater height. And so, our role to play in that is in making labor and robotic automation as easy to use as personal computers are. And I think that having a future where we can do that is a really exciting future because right now everything happens very quickly in technology because it's easy to move bits around (data) and it's harder to move atoms (physical goods). If you can make it easy to move atoms too, then you can have societal change and infrastructural change and physical objects change, almost as quickly as we see digital things change. And I think that's a really exciting feature for humanity to have.”