Back in the late 90s when I was just starting Moonfruit, the world’s first SAAS website builder, creating your own website was hard. From setting up your own server, to working with an ISP, to getting a content delivery network and integrating a middleware layer to communicate with your computer, to design and UX — creating a website was a lengthy multi-step process that was only accessible to a small group of technical experts or large companies. It wasn’t until websites were simple and easy to make that the full creative and business potential of the web really began to blossom.
I loved the role I played in creating platforms that inspired the imagination and entrepreneurship of people all over the world, and I’ve recently stepped into a similar opportunity: I’m delighted to share that I’m now leading Intrinsic, a new Alphabet company.
Intrinsic is working to unlock the creative and economic potential of industrial robotics for millions more businesses, entrepreneurs, and developers. We’re developing software tools designed to make industrial robots (which are used to make everything from solar panels to cars) easier to use, less costly and more flexible, so that more people can use them to make new products, businesses and services.
By unlocking access to these incredible productivity tools, we hope to support a shift towards a more sustainable and equitable way of making things. Currently just 10 countries manufacture 70% of the world’s goods. This means most things are made far away from their end consumers, which drives global transport emissions, and many countries and businesses miss out on economic opportunities. Even countries with strong manufacturing sectors need help meeting demand: the US manufacturing industry alone is expected to have 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030.
Explorations in robot sensing, learning, and adaptation
The surprisingly manual and bespoke process of teaching robots how to do things, which hasn’t changed much over the last few decades, is currently a cap on their potential to help more businesses. Specialist programmers can spend hundreds of hours hard coding robots to perform specific jobs, like welding two pieces of metal, or gluing together an electronics case. And many dexterous and delicate tasks, like inserting plugs or moving cords, remain unfeasible for robots because they lack the sensors or software needed to understand their physical surroundings.
Over the last few years, our team has been exploring how to give industrial robots the ability to sense, learn, and automatically make adjustments as they’re completing tasks, so they work in a wider range of settings and applications. Working in collaboration with teams across Alphabet, and with our partners in real-world manufacturing settings, we’ve been testing software that uses techniques like automated perception, deep learning, reinforcement learning, motion planning, simulation, and force control.
A robot at the Intrinsic lab uses machine learning and force control to insert three different types of power connectors (video sped up)
Two robots use perception, force control, and multi-robot planning to assemble a simple piece of furniture (video sped up)
In one instance, we trained a robot in two hours to complete a USB connection task that would take hundreds of hours to program. In other tests, we orchestrated multiple robot arms to assemble an architectural installation and a simple piece of furniture. None of this is realistic or affordable to automate today — and there are millions of other examples like this in businesses around the world. This all hints at the potential for Intrinsic’s software to radically reduce the time, cost, and complexity required to use industrial robots — and therefore their long-term potential to help with a much wider range of problems and drive up the diversity of goods that can be produced affordably and sustainably.
Intrinsic’s motion planning software orchestrates four industrial robots to build wooden pods for a sustainable architecture project by Gramazio Kohler Research, ETH Zurich
What’s next for Intrinsic
After five and a half years developing our technology at X, we’re now ready to become an independent Alphabet company, leaving the moonshot factory’s rapid prototyping environment to focus on developing our product and validating our technology. We are currently looking for partners in the automotive, electronics, and health care industries who are already using industrial robotics and want to learn together.
We’re also hiring. I’m privileged to work with some of the world’s leading AI and robotics experts including our CTO Torsten Kroeger, Engelberger Award winner Martin Haegele, robotics innovator Rainer Bischoff, and reinforcement learning luminary Stefan Schaal. If you’re an AI expert, software engineer or roboticist keen to grow and build new technologies that will unlock the economic and creative potential of others, please check out our job openings.