Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Sunday, October 24, 2021

Robotics Startup Attracts Stellar Cast 

A robotics startup developing a “cognitive engine” that would allow industrial robots to operate autonomously on the factory floor announced a $15 million funding round, supplementing earlier bets by high-profile angel investors.

Robot.AI said the Series A round was led by Jazz Venture Partners with participation from previous investors Fontinalis Partners, Liquid2 and Playground Global. The latest funding round announced on Wednesday (Oct. 28) raises the AI startup’s venture total to $22.5 million.

Founded in 2019, the Palo Alto-based automation specialist is developing a software stack that would enable multi-purpose industrial robots that are “semantically aware.” Able to operate in unstructured factory settings, the company’s founders claim their approach would allow manufacturers to deploy robust robots faster, and with more layers of safety.

“The deep-learning, heavy AI approach that many favor today often fails in the real world,” said co-founder and CEO Gary Marcus. “In dynamic environments that change rapidly, current-generation robots can easily get confused, which is why we are still a long way from Rosie the Robot.”

Marcus, co-found of Geometric Intelligence (acquired by Uber) and professor of neural science at New York University, said the startup’s ambitious goal is expanding the robotics industry “by overhauling the software stack for robotics, injecting cognition and common sense into the pipeline, allowing robots to operate in complex environments that were previously out of reach.”

Rodney Brooks, Robust.AI’s co-founder and CTO, is the former director of MIT’s Computer Science and AI Lab. Brooks is the co-inventor of the iRobot Roomba robot vacuum.

Co-founders Anthony Jules and Henrik Christensen are robotics veterans, Jules at Google and Christensen as director of the University of California at San Diego’s Contextual Robotics Institute. Mohamed Amer, another co-founder and chief science officer, previously developed machine vision technologies and explainable AI at SRI International.

Angel investors include Esther Dyson, among the best-known technology entrepreneurs, and Steve Blank, widely known in Silicon Valley as the “lean startup” guru.

Besides Dyson, Robust.AI advisers include Steven Pinker, the Harvard University psychology professor and author, as well as Missy Cummings, an engineering professor at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering. Cummings is an authority on designing safe, reliable autonomous systems.

Robust.AI said it seeks to move robotics technology beyond consumer tasks like sweeping the floor by incorporating a “cognitively-driven AI platform into industrial robots that would allow them to function autonomously in dynamic industrial settings.”

About the author: George Leopold

George Leopold has written about science and technology for more than 30 years, focusing on electronics and aerospace technology. He previously served as executive editor of Electronic Engineering Times. Leopold is the author of "Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom" (Purdue University Press, 2016).

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