What I know about investing in robotics: Jose Berengueres

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To obtain his PhD in bio-inspired robotics at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Dr. Jose Berengueres studied the movement of a gecko in order to build a robot.

That was the beginning of his exploration into how the real world and robotics could intersect.

Since gaining his PhD in 2007, he’s worked on robotic projects worldwide, served as a consultant for multinational companies including Apple, and wrote an Amazon bestseller on design thinking.

As the current assistant professor in robotics, UX and design thinking at UAE University, Berengueres is responsible for the robotics and media lab. His team also advises local companies on the application of artificial intelligence (AI).

In response to a friend who called asking for advice, Berengueres recently published a list of questions that investors interested in robotics must ask before making a deal. He sat with Wamda to dive deeper into the topic, discussing in particular the status of robotics in the region.

Robotics is a revolution. Just like the computer revolution and the automobile revolution, if you want to understand what’s going to happen look at these revolutions. The computer was developed first for the military, then for the corporation, then the hobbyists took over and then in 1984, Steve Jobs introduced the Mac to the mass market. If you look at robotics, it’s similar. From drones for the military, to its application in factories, to its current adoption at maker fairs and events like Burning Man where hobbyists are building their own robots. 

 Dr. Jose Berengueres.

AI is the last hurdle in robotics. Like fashion, robotics too has trends and AI is the current one. We have built robots for industrial use, for entertainment purposes and for athletic and social activities. It’s not about the hardware - that’s been done. The problem is how to make this mechanical structure intelligent.

Software will be a battlefield for investment. That’s why Uber, Google and Facebook are hiring the brightest AI scientists around. A mechanical engineer in love with mechanical things, with no understanding of software, can start a company and build a robot. But he will just build a box with no intelligence, like a modern washing machine or a TV, both of which still need buttons to work. Successful mechanical companies are the ones that are building good software.

The brain of your next robot is going to be your phone. Currently, with the phone, you can learn a language or set a reminder. Apple wants a piece of that, Soft Bank wants a piece of that and don’t be surprised if Google named its phone Android for this reason.

Robots are getting cheaper. With the cost of building robots coming down we are seeing them being given more tasks outside of the traditional DDD (dangerous, disgusting, dull) zone. One example is Abu Dhabi-funded and Barcelona-based PAL Robotics. PAL has developed a RFID robot that can navigate shop floors. Every night, after a long day of sales when the shop is closed and empty of customers, the robot follows all the alleys in the shop and scans RFID tags of products on shelves or hangers. Right now, it is very expensive to pay a human to do this job.

There’s been significant growth in the region. The investments have not stopped, they have skyrocketed. As is the case in most places, there’s a lot of interest in military application. In the UAE, companies like PAL and Adasi are noticeable players, and there’s a lot of work being done in the educational field. There is also a lot of demand from the government, which is super awesome because it will build expertise in the society.

Invest in the next Silicon Valleys of robotics. Buy real estate where all the companies are because if this revolution is going to happen, there’s going to be a lot of wealth. You don’t know who’s going to get the wealth, but they will need to rent houses. There are two robotics hotspots right now, one in Boston called Robotics Alley, and because of the shift to AI, Silicon Valley. It’s too late to for Silicon Valley [as there's so much happening there already], so invest in Boston.

A waving helper from PAL Robotics. (Image via PAL Robotics)

Invest in companies making robots smarter. Not the ones making robots. Startups should be developing something that people need - like a vision system or sub system of robot or AI. Let other people take the risk, let the other entrepreneur start their car company, you want to become the Michelin or the Good Year for car companies - that’s a much safer bet.

MENA is a great place for robots. A harsh natural environment is a perfect place for robots. For example, many people die of extreme heat around the world. That’s perfect for robots because robots don't die of heat. Robots were very expensive in the past and the only place where users were justified to use them was if the work was dirty, dangerous, or dull, like toxic, fire or the mundane. As a robot becomes cheaper and enables cost cutting, these applications will become common, making the region a base for robots.


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