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From fun and games to industry disruptors: Let the robot games begin!

Written by: Richard Lightbound, CEO, EMEA

I was fortunate to be one of the few hundred investors and investment professionals to attend the ETF Securities conference in Milan. While there was plenty to enjoy, the highlight for me was seeing Raffaello D'Andrea, one of our amazing advisory board members, as the headline presenter at the event.

As I sat in the audience in Milan, I watched a couple of hundred people settle into their seats for what, I am sure, they expected to be yet another technical financial presentation. Raffaello was the last speaker of the day-long event, and the earlier sessions had been filled with technical analysis of ETFs, financial analytics, and researcher thematics. I knew they were in for quite a show. Raffaello did not disappoint. As soon as he took the stage, you could almost feel his passion jolt the room. This is a man who lives and breathes robotics, and his enthusiasm about both where the industry is today and where it is going is palpable.

He began by giving his first example of robots that have gone from merely innovative to “robust and reliable” game-changers: soccer-playing robots. As the faculty advisor and system architect of the Cornell Robot Soccer Team (which, to be clear, is a football team to all of us Europeans!), he was focused on much more than a simple sporting competition. While the teams of robotic soccer players compete, the real focus is the humans involved in creating advanced autonomous systems that make greater movement and capabilities possible.

Raffaello showed a video of the first team under his “coaching.” The robots were just what you might imagine: a collection of rather clunky metal blocks that could move around the field and “kick” a ball. Fast-forward to his last world champion team (his students won a total of four world champions at the international RoboCup competition under his tutelage) and the video is entirely different. In less than five years, the “players” had transformed into autonomous competitors that could execute sophisticated motions and strategies and ultimately come up with a strategy to win the game. No humans required. During his tenure at Cornell, even Raffaello could not have guessed where these innovations would lead—or that they would pave the way for one of the biggest industry disruptions of the 2000s. “At the time, we had no idea what the commercial application might be,” he said, “but it turned out to be tremendous.”

Fast forward to 2003 when Raffaello became a co-founder of Kiva Systems, where the mission was to create a better way to pick, pack, and ship orders through a system that could deliver any item to any operator at any time. It didn’t take long for Kiva’s founders to realize that teaching a soccer-playing robot how to kick a ball to precisely score a goal wasn’t far removed from teaching a factory robot how to get a specific SKU to the right place at the right time. Kiva Robots were born, and Raffaello’s team of soccer players grew to become what is now a fleet of more than 100,000 robotic factory workers that have helped Amazon become the largest, most efficient internet retailer in the world.

Soccer players weren’t Raffaello’s only story of robotic games and entertainment becoming robotic disruptors. As he talked about what’s changing now that robots are robust and reliable (his theme of the day), he showed videos of the incredible drone shows created at Verity Studios. Now so reliable that they can fly in and among large crowds, they create gorgeous light shows that are utterly unique—and never before possible. And while the use of drones in the performing arts is nothing short of mesmerizing (see examples on the Verity Studios page), their practical use off-stage has immense potential. Just last week a drone made history when it was used to rescue stranded swimmers who had been caught in a 10-foot swell. In just 70 seconds, the drone was able to reach the swimmers and drop a “rescue pod” they were able to grab on to and swim to shore. Today, drones are being used for everything from spraying crops to building safety inspections and more. Tomorrow? The list of practical applications seems endless.

For a live demonstration of the powers of artificial intelligence, Raffaello brought out a recent project: a cube that can learn in real time to jump up and balance. As we watched, it tried, then tried again, to flip onto an edge. Once that was accomplished, its next task was to tip itself onto one corner and balance. “Again, I have no idea what the real-world use may be,” said Raffaello, “but it was a challenge—and we solved it.” Like the Kiva Robots, I have no doubt that this latest innovation will be used to solve a much bigger problem soon, and perhaps disrupt yet another industry.

By the end of the presentation, Raffaello’s passion about the trajectory of the robotics industry today was infectious, and it was clear why investing now is critical. I walked out of the session filled with pride. As one of “our PhDs” (as we affectionately call our advisory team), Raffaello is not only immersed in the world of robotics innovation every day, but he’s one of the key industry players who is personally driving the change that is turning today’s research innovations into tomorrow’s industry disruptors. To call him a colleague seems too pedestrian. Instead, I call him an inspiration. Watch one of his TED Talks and I am certain you will too.


About Raffaello D'Andrea, PhD

As one of the leading robotics experts in the world, Raffaello’s active participation on the ROBO Global Advisory Board is just one of his many roles. At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, his research is redefining the capabilities of autonomous systems. As the co-founder of Kiva Systems (now Amazon Robotics), he has played a key role in transforming how today’s factories and warehouses function. As the founder of Verity Studios, he has brought robots onto the stage to perform with acts as diverse as Cirque du Soleil, Metallica, and even the Knicks’ opening act at Madison Square Garden. And his popular TED Talks inspire people worldwide. Clearly, his contributions to the world of robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence (RAAI) are tremendous. It’s no wonder that every one of his presentations is just as fascinating as the man himself.

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