The Droids You've Been Looking For

(Bloomberg) -- Brain, a San Diego-based startup backed by SoftBank’s $100 billion Vision Fund, is on the verge of finally bringing robots to the masses. Unfortunately for sci-fi fans, these aren’t the droids they were looking for.

Founder Eugene Izhikevich was in Tokyo this week to unveil his latest creation: a 32-kilogram autonomous floor-cleaning machine the size of a carry-on. Whiz comes equipped with self-driving software and an array of sensors developed by Brain that allows it to safely vacuum floors even when humans are present.

SoftBank will begin leasing the robot to Japanese businesses for about $220 a month, starting in February. A bigger version of the robot will be making its way to hundreds of Walmart stores by the end of the year, Izhikevich said. Put together, this will make Brain the world’s biggest provider of robots for public spaces (most automated robots are confined to warehouses and factories).

The population of industrial robots has surpassed 2 million and there are more than 20 million Roomba cleaners, but the devices have made few inroads outside the home and factory floor. SoftBank’s own Pepper humanoid tried to double as a talking shop assistant but failed to catch on. Then there is that hapless security bot that went viral after taking a plunge into a shopping mall fountain. “You can tell it wasn’t using our software,” Izhikevich said.

Brain found a clever shortcut for getting robots to work in unpredictable environments — make humans do the teaching first. The Whiz comes with a handle which lets a custodian walk the robot through the space that needs cleaning, after that it can perform the task autonomously. Essentially, Brain’s sensors and software transform a regular vacuum cleaner into a robotic one for about $1,000, Izhikevich said.

That’s troubling news for companies that have spent years developing expensive bipedal and four-legged machines. Boston Dynamics regularly shows videos of robots doing backflips and navigating tough terrain, but it has yet to deliver a commercial product after 25 years. Just this month, news hit that Alphabet is shutting down another biped hopeful — Schaft — after failing to find a buyer.

Brain’s Izhikevich says there is little doubt that bipedal robots are still the right approach — after all, human environments are designed to be traversed on two feet. The problem, he says, is that it might take another 50 years for the technology to mature. For the time being, he’s betting that most of the robots we’ll see will be of the humbler variety made by his company. Next, he’s targeting security patrol and deliveries inside big-box stores. “My dream is there is an unveiling of a new robot every month.”

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