writes copy 09 Dec 2022

Critical mass

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Greetings from'¦somewhere. As I mentioned the other week, I'm taking a few weeks off. It's the first time off I’ve had this year and the most consecutive days I've taken off in 15+ years of being a tech journalist. It's been a hard/weird last few years, and burnout has a way of sneaking up on you while you're not looking.

I'm trying to ignore the creeping sense of guilt about not doing a couple of proper year-end newsletters this time out. I'll be back right after the Christmas break, though, and we can debrief on 2022 then, just as we ease into full freak-out mode pre-CES (the level of real robotics news at what is ostensibly a consumer show always feels like a bit of a crapshoot).

I also have some passing thoughts about the need for more focused robotics journalism out there that I've been wanting to get down on paper. That's not to say there aren't good people out there doing good work. But there's a lot more that needs to be done to mainstream coverage. Apologies for pasting some thoughts over from LinkedIn. If you read those posts, feel free to skip the next couple of grafs. Consider this a minor manifesto of sorts.

Quoting myself here (I know, I know):

If you run a robotics startup and want coverage, come ready to answer difficult questions. Categories like crypto have been done a disservice by some breathless coverage. It’s our job to ask some hard and sometimes uncomfortable questions.

A good investor will have already prepared you for some of them, like market fit and ROI. Even seemingly simple questions like “Why does this need to exist?” and “Why are you the right person/team to execute it?” can be difficult for many founders to answer.

They shouldn’t be. You should be asking yourself these questions every day. If you can’t find meaningful answers, you might not be the right person for the job. Accepting that and pivoting isn’t failure. Ignoring it and carrying on ultimately might be, however.

I've been genuinely surprised that more major publications aren’t investing in robotics coverage. Now is the time to starting building coverage of robotics/automation. The category has largely been done a disservice, as it’s been more of an afterthought. I got my start writing about gadgets (it’s still a big part of my role at TechCrunch), so I completely understand the impulse to fall back on Skynet and Black Mirror jokes, rather than having a nuanced conversation.

But questions about ethics, automation/labor and the like are important to bake into these conversations. Asking difficult questions isn’t combative. It’s not doing the industry a disservice (unless said industry can’t stand up to scrutiny). It’s an important part of growing. Otherwise one day you wake up and have a Theranos or FTX on your hands.

Sometimes these things are scams from the outset, but oftentimes it’s the product of someone who believed in their mission, but ultimately didn’t get enough pushback along the way and began believing their own lies.

Asking the right questions comes with being immersed in a topic. Knowing the lay of the land, talking to the right people and finely honing your BS detector. I’m not here to be anyone’s cheerleader, but I’m also not in the business of criticizing for criticism’s sake. Coverage should reflect the product and the people who make it — for better and worse.

All right, that's enough bloviating from me for a while. For the next couple of weeks, I'm leaving you in some very capable hands. We've got some insight from some very smart folks in the space. Coming up over the next couple of weeks are PlayGround Global's Peter Barrett and UC Berkeley's Ken Goldberg.

Q&A with Joyce Sidopoulos

Image Credits: MassRobotics

Today we're kicking things off with MassRobotics' chief of operations, Joyce Sidopoulos, who was also a great help for my recent trip to Boston. See you on the other side.

TC: What was the biggest robotics story of 2022?  

JS: There are a number of stories that are changing the landscape of the robotics industry, such as Hyundai's announcement of a $400 million AI and robotics institute powered by Boston Dynamics, but one of the most impactful stories is Amazon's acquisition of iRobot.

What are your biggest robotics predictions for 2023?

The adoption of robotics will continue to grow at a rapid pace, in spite of, or possibly due to, the predicted economic downturn. The last few years have proven the worth of many robot systems, such as those used in warehouses.

How profound of an impact has the pandemic had on robotics?

Very. The pandemic highlighted the value that robotics can provide, and spurred on more development and commercialization. The pandemic led to the realization that domestic manufacturing needs help and our supply chain is broken, areas which robotics can help solve. Industries began to adopt collaborative robots to help with workforce shortfalls and that will continue.

How much of an impact has the macroeconomic environment had on robotics investing?

We are definitely seeing that it is taking startups longer to raise rounds, but so far there are funds still available. MassRobotics recently held an investor demo day for about 30 of our startups and we had a great turnout of interested investors.

What underaddressed category deserves more focus from robotics startups and investors?

Climate change and sustainability. We will need to make significant strides in using technology to impact some of our global challenges, and we believe robotics can play a growing role, from wind turbine inspection to automated recycling.

How will automation impact the workforce of the future?

The best applications for robots today are where robots work in conjunction with human workers. Companies that have been successful in deploying robots have increased their workforce. Robots will replace dull, dirty and dangerous jobs. Those are the undesirable jobs that are not easily filled.

Are home robotics finally having their moment?

We are watching Amazon's acquisition of iRobot closely. We believe there are plenty of opportunities for robots in the home in the future.

What more can/should the U.S. do to foster innovation in the category?

Increase the support for the startup community by investing in innovation centers (like MassRobotics) and create incentives for small and midsized firms to adopt robotics to allow them to be competitive on the world stage.

Critical mass by Brian Heater originally published on TechCrunch

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