The inaugural Solid Conference by O’Reilly was absolutely brilliant! Thoroughly inspiring and thought-provoking. Here are some (and by far not all) themes and topics I took note of.

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Robotics

There was a lot of talk about how robotics is a growing market, especially in the area of ‘service robots’ and ‘personal robots’, like healthcare, delivery, appliances and toys. What constitutes a robot was also subject to some of the talks. I like the idea that “we’re surrounded by robots we don’t see while we wait for the robots we expected” that Andra Keay of Silicon Robotics described.

Rodney Brooks of Rethink Robotics showed how while robotics is field that’s been around a while now, we’re now at a place where software can be used much more efficiently to enhance the performance of hardware. He showed how their robot ‘Baxter’ improved it’s speed and skills for example when gripping objects just through enhanced software on the same hardware.

He also described how, so far, factory lines where sort of either robotic-only or human-only, with the whole line shutting down when a human crossed the safety barrier. It was interesting to see how Rethink Robotics is working on factory robots that are designed to work alongside humans. I especially love how ‘Baxter’ uses the pair of eyes it displays to show its intention and where it is working, by looking at it’s ‘hands’ or the direction it is moving something.

Baxter-robot

The ‘teaching’ was also interesting. Rather than complex programming, the idea with ‘Baxter’ is that it can be taught simply showing it the task it needs to do. For example by taking a gripper by the hand and gripping the object in question, squeezing the robot’s gripper together.

But there is a long way to go: Rodney Brooks shared four developmental milestones of human development he’d like to see the robot industry achieve:

  • The object recognition skills of a 2 year old.
  • The dexterity of a 4 year old.
  • The language understanding of a 6 year old.
  • The social understanding of an 8 year old.

Last one in the robotics realm: The work of Bot & Dolly is impressive and beautiful. As ‘translators’ between the languages of performance disciplines and that of robotics, the studio specialises in using robots in films (like Gravity) or other artistic performances.

Products with a market size of one

Neil Gershenfeld showcased the work of some of his students at MIT and shared his view that fabrication is undergoing a similar development as computing did: Initially computers were room-sized devices that became smaller and more prolific and eventually pocket sized. Fabrication machines are on a similar trajectory with more and more affordable desktop fabricators that are like the early personal computers. He discussed how Fab Labs become part of the public services (like libraries) that governments should provide to its citizen and how this could make cities ‘globally connected for knowledge, but locally self sufficient to produce what they consume’. Oh, and the work he shared on reversibly linked carbon-fibre loops was also pretty amazing.

By the way, if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend his book ‘Fab – the coming revolution on your desktop‘.

One of Gershenfeld’s students, Nadya Peek shared some of her work around ‘rapid prototyping or rapid prototyping machines’ or ‘machines that make machines‘. She showed ‘PopFab‘ – a computer-controlled motion platform that makes possible things like a portable 3D printer that fits inside a suitcase.

Ayah Bdeir of LittleBits showed how her company is enabling this idea of products with a market size of one person. She shared her view that what’s lacking in hardware is the equivalent of abstract programming languages in software: One one end there is raw assembly language, which is sort of like raw electronics; components on breadboard or stripboard. On the other end are finished compiled and deployed apps, which are sort of like the consumer hardware devices we buy. But in software, there is an in-between: abstracted languages that make programming faster and easier and make it possible to quickly create an app that runs on one machine. That’s her vision behind LittleBits – hardware components that can be easily assembled into new arrangements to prototype electronics.

Interoperability, interoperability, interoperability

I also really enjoyed Tim O’Reilly’s talk about designing software and systems above the level of a single device. One of the key points he made in my view was how the web really took off when it was widely adopted as ‘the network of networks’ – so everybody agreed that the power is in the interoperability of it. He urged that this should be the focus for the IOT, too and I couldn’t agree more.

He referenced Aaron Levie’s (CEO of Box) tweet about Uber being a lesson in building for how the world should work rather than optimising for how it does work, and encouraged everyone to see the opportunity in the IOT in this way – hard challenges that require fundamental change of entire industries rather than incremental improvement.

There were many more inspiring and interesting things being shown and said – if I get a chance, I will try and write up some more of my notes.

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