I’ve lost track of how many trips to China I’ve taken over the years, but I know so far this year I’ve been three times.
The routine here is simple. Wake up early to catch people in the US before they leave the office. At 8:30am take a car to head to the factory. Spend an hour to sift through emails from the past day in the US. Catch up on Slack conversations. Meet with the team in China to make plans for the day. Answer questions, make decisions, and ensure things are moving. It’s hard to be mostly disconnected from the team — but this work, the work I am doing here, is critical. The schedule, test fixtures, electronics, mechanics, materials, tooling, deco. If all of these manufacturing components aren’t perfect, the line won’t run and none of it will matter. There would be no Misty.
My name is Ian. To say I’m into robots is a gross understatement.
This area of the world around Shenzhen, China is heaven for making things. It’s like an inventor’s candy store where you can walk down the street and buy almost any mechanical or electrical component you could dream of. This is robot heaven, and maybe that’s why I enjoy my time here so much.
“Robot” is such a broad word, but for me, and for the team at Misty Robotics, our future is focused on the personal robot.
Personal robot… At Misty we use this term a lot. We use it to describe what we’re building and how our mission is different than if we were building, say, a vacuum. We also use the term to visualize our goal: “a personal robot in every home and office.”
It’s become our mantra. Our guiding light. And our manifested future.
So what is a personal robot, exactly?
Flashback to me at 5 years old.
I’m sitting in our living room in New Mexico watching the Jetsons on tv. It’s an episode titled Rosie Come Home.
The Jetson’s maid and caretaker, Rosie, has left the family, and appears to be about to commit suicide (yes, pretty dark for a 5 year old).
The whole problem started when Rosie’s microchip master cylinder, well beyond its service / replacement date, began to cause glitches. One thing led to another, and in typical sitcom fashion, there was a great deal of miscommunication that led to Rosie believing she was going to be replaced by a newer model, and her feeling ‘off’ (malfunctioning) because of the microchip defects she’s experiencing . She feels insignificant and crazy. It’s a horrible state to be in. (I wonder later if this is a metaphor for mental illness.)
Meanwhile the Jetsons family end up with a flashy new model to test out that they absolutely hate. She’s boring, too by-the-book, and basically a drag. There is all this pressure on them to get something better. Newer. More “perfect”. But perfect is not what the Jetsons want. They want their Rosie.
Eventually, Rosie ends up diving into a trash compactor to end it all (who knew the Jetsons was so heavy?).
My 5-year old brain takes this all in.
The climate in 2017 feels similar. There is a strong movement underway that realizes how important and valuable a particular robot can be. A robot that has a heart. That is multipurpose. That can be a part of our families.
This is the time of the personal robot.
And like Rosie, this category of robots will be one of us. It will be a helper. A friend. And it will not be perfect. Not for a while. Maybe never. Besides, as I saw on the Jetsons, absolute perfection can be cold. Alienating. And inhuman.
This is what the team at Misty consider to be a personal robot — what we are building towards.
When I talk about a personal robot, I believe there are four rules that will define them as such, ultimately allowing them to become a part of our daily lives:
Rule 1. They are useful
They do things that save us time, and/or that are difficult for us to do without aid. This could be something that requires mathematical calculations like virtually mapping a room, or maybe it’s something simple but tedious, like straightening out your shoes or sock drawer. Folding our laundry. Reminding us to take our medicine. The list is long.
Rule 2. They have a sense of familiarity
This is two-fold. First, the robot should have a sense of their world. Their environment. But they also should have a sense of the people and things they interact with. And familiarity is developed over time. So the more exposure the robot has, the more people the robot meets, the more skills they learn, the more rooms they enter, the more insight they will gain.
On the other hand, the robot should feel more and more familiar to us: their human friends and families. Like in all relationships, everyone has their quirks that make them unique. Their style, mannerisms, and vibe. Robots should be no different if we wish to make them feel more like a being than an object. They should become familiar to us as as we become familiar to them, which is the basis of a strong relationship.
Rule 3. They evoke an emotional connection and forge relationships
The robot’s familiarity, or personality, combined with our experiences / time spent with them can lead to long term emotional connection. I hear people talk about their relationships with things all the time: My guitar. My car. My coffee maker. We already do this. Sometimes, we go so far as to name them. We tend to value the things that enable us to have amazing experiences as well as those things that act as instruments towards mastery. A robot can increase that connection considerably because the robot, unlike, say, your coffee maker, can get to know you. Can be a part of your world in a more “human” way than any other “object” in your life.
Rule 4. They are multipurpose
A Roomba, for example, is a single purpose robot that is awesome at one thing — vacuuming. Personal robots, however, can’t be one-trick ponies. They must be designed to assist us with many tasks and be constantly expanding their abilities. This is important because it isn’t practical or economical for a household or office to have a robot for every single task. We should be building personal robots that can learn a vast assortment of skills. You know, like Rosie.
The future is now: a wave of personal robots is about to arrive.
But we don’t believe they’ll suddenly drop into our lives as polished as an iPhone X is. Besides, in actuality the iPhone X took 10+ years of iteration, not including the decades of work in mobile prior to Apple joining the fun.
We are at the beginning of something incredible. Something that will fundamentally change our relationship with technology — making it more useful, familiar, and emotional. Trust me on this: personal robots are about to become our companions and our helpers. And eventually — over time — our Rosies.
Back to the Jetsons.
Luckily, the family has followed Rosie to the dump and witnessed her leap into the trash compactor. They rescue her from certain death, and have her repaired. And like in most sitcoms — everything immediately goes back to the way it was. Everyone is happy. But I believe that neither party will take one another for granted for a while.
All is good again in cartoonland.
And back in China, I’m reviewing our latest prototypes. I have already started to become attached. Among them, MY Misty. I see in them all the promise of the future the writers at Hanna Barbera predicted. And more.
I can’t wait for you guys to meet them. So that you can all see it, too.
And I can’t wait for the inventors, the hackers, the makers, and the creators to help us figure out all this personal robot will be capable of. What we can all make possible.
I wish I could share more.