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Staying Grounded as Innovation Takes Off



A reflection on learnings from guest speaker, Marc Raibert—executive director of the Boston Dynamics AI Institute and chairman of the board at Boston Dynamics, one of the most influential robotics organizations in the world.

Executive Summary

This article provides an analysis and reflection on Oceanside Perspective's interview with Marc Raibert, founder of Boston Dynamics and the Boston Dynamics AI Institute. Raibert’s experience in robotics attests to the growth of the industry and the exciting new capabilities of robotics for varied purposes. The expansion of robotics plays a role in the larger conversation about automation becoming a more integral part of productivity across the economy. This includes concerns about the ethics and viability of relying on automation. The article then discusses guiding principles for how to succeed in different areas across life, including following one’s passion and immersing oneself in a healthy environmentboth drawn from Marc Raibert’s advice for budding engineers and entrepreneurs. Embarking on challenging projects is often an uphill climb, but exposure to a culture that embraces creativity and calculated risk-taking is conducive to breakthroughs and successes.

Increasing Mechanization in Society

With the rise of increasingly sophisticated technology, the proliferation of automation and mechanization is a hallmark of modern society. The work of companies like Boston Dynamics’ cutting-edge innovations signifies a turn towards a world in which robots complement and enhance our everyday lives. The distinguishing characteristic of cognition combined with physicality in Boston Dynamics’ robots is a key element that makes interactions with robots an exciting, and even fun, prospect. One only needs to look at Boston Dynamics' viral dancing robots video, which has over 39 million views, to see the intrigue of human or animal-like robots. This naturalistic quality makes people more likely to accept the widespread presence of them in our lives.

At present, robots’ primary utility lies in their ability to increase efficiency in settings like warehouses and factories. This is cause for reasonable concern for job scarcity driven by increasing automation. While it is true that automation is replacing many low-skill jobs, it has led to the redistribution of labor towards other sectors in a phenomenon known as labor displacement. Automation’s advantage in doing repetitive, physically-intensive jobs gives workers the opportunities to repurpose their skills and seek more stimulating work. This, however, is not always the case. Worker displacement caused by automation can result in job loss and insecurity for workers who have a fixed skillset. Even so, robots have proven to be helpful overall in completing tasks and jobs that formerly required much larger inputs. They have the vast potential to improve our quality of life in a multitude of ways. This speaks to Marc Raibert’s conviction of the fact that robots can only enhance our lives and are not something to be afraid of, but instead something to embrace.

There still remains controversy about the ethics of allowing the expansion of robotics because of potential malice and other concerns relating to safety and privacy. Such concerns are often associated with the use of AI, but when robots possess cognition without emotionality, there is less cause for fear. Robots created by Boston Dynamics are so groundbreaking for this reasonthey combine cognition with physicality while still achieving the objectives of engineers. However, for those that harbor fear over the dangers of robots, it is critical to open up conversation regarding the topic to gauge multiple perspectives. As posited by Raibert, it would be unfortunate for regulatory policies to hamper the development and expansion of robotics before the technology reaches more substantial capabilities. It is helpful to be cautious but not paranoid while hoping for a future that promises significant advances in technology.

Importance of Passion

It is common advice to follow one’s passion, but it is truly inspirational to see the results of individuals who have combined their passion with dedication to produce something revolutionary. Marc Raibert is one such individualhis work at Boston Dynamics has produced innovative technologies for the commercial sector, but his side project of creating dancing robots was for the sole purpose of fun. This emphasizes the idea that when following one’s passion, work does not always feel like work. It is easier to create something of value when we enjoy our work. Likewise, breakthroughs are more likely to occur as we try new things and pursue creative passion projects. In the instance of creating the dancing robots, Raibert and the company not only made room for entertainment and experimentation in the workplace, but they also developed new skills. Programming the robots to dance involved the use of different technology than they were used to, helping engineers strengthen their skill set while also having fun. As entertaining as it is to watch the robots dance in such a lifelike manner, it also serves as inspiration to budding engineers who are interested in the field.

It is easier to create something of value when we enjoy our work.

Another advantage of the pursuit of one’s passion is committing to the integrity of a craft. In Raibert’s case, he had the opportunity to build on the commerciality of his robots early in the life of the company. However, he chose to postpone taking this route in favor of perfecting his products and honing functionality first. When he finally went down the road of commerciality, his products defied industry norms and surpassed consumer expectations: “Spot” is a robot that automates sensing and inspection in warehouse settings, while “Stretch” easily maneuvers large volumes of boxes. It can be easy to follow the temptation of instant commercial success, but the delayed gratification of releasing a meticulously-designed product pays far greater dividends over time.

Importance of Culture

Given the formative property of culture on our decisions, preferences, actions, and overall character, it is important to pay attention to the culture we surround ourselves with and determine if it supports or hinders our objectives. Furthermore, it is a well-known fact that we integrate aspects of our environment into our personality and identity. Especially in respect to workplace culture, we have the power to seek out companies that promote positive environments that encourage growth. The cultural principles at Boston Dynamics represent an environment in which employees are allowed to embrace creativity and experimentation.

More specifically, diligence, technical fearlessness, and having fun are the primary values by which employees operate at the company. These values ensure that a diverse group of workers can apply their unique skills and talents to projects, yielding greater growth than if they were confined by more stringent standards. Diligence is critical for building skills and refining processes. Employees have the opportunity to work through challenges and come up with innovative solutions that can be applied to future projects. Technical fearlessness is the concept that engineers should explore and test new technological approaches, even if there is a risk of failure. While their efforts may not succeed, there is a chance for novel breakthroughs that would not have otherwise been made. Finally, the inclusion of fun in the workplace is an important tenet of creativity. As seen with the dancing robots, having fun serves to raise motivation and encourages experimentation of new ideas.

Focus on the Long-term

Endeavoring on complex projects is often exciting in the beginning stages, but it can quickly become tiresome to manage the multitude of conflicts that begin to arise in later stages. This is one reason why the value of diligence is so integral to work. Keeping sight of the end goal and working past challenges usually produces success. Even if the project fails, we can extract lessons that can be applied to the next one. Long-term thinking is also helpful when deciding which projects to take on. While an opportunity makes sense now, there may be a lack of capacity or resources in the future. Thus, the availability of necessary resources is a factor to consider. In Marc Raibert’s experience, he details how he abandoned the promising surgery simulator in favor of other, more viable projects. It was this long-term approach that allowed the development of the robotics that define the company today.

Projects that take time are intimidating and require multiple steps, which is why a detailed plan of action is needed. A large task can be broken up into smaller stepping stones that serve as a record of progress. This acts as a motivating factor in getting closer to achieving long-term goals. The stepping stones, however, should be significant enough that one feels rewarded when they are achieved.

From a business standpoint, considering the long term includes assessing the alignment of the company with customer needs. Catering to customers makes the company more viable over time, but it may hamper it from solving fundamental problems relating to technology. This is where leadership can choose to work on the existing problems to produce bold solutions or focus on commercial needs. While fixing processes and technology can take a long time, it could have large payouts over time. Regardless of the direction a company chooses to take, it should always have a plan of action. Marc Raibert discusses Boston Dynamics’ focus on both “today products” and “tomorrow products,” where tomorrow products are ones that need to be fleshed out further before they can be sold commercially. Such a plan diversifies the company's efforts and enables greater opportunities for growth.

Guest Speaker's Bio

Marc Raibert is executive director of the AI Institute. In this role, he drives The Institute's strategic roadmap and spearheads recruitment efforts to achieve the organization’s mission of developing technology that enables future generations of intelligent machines.

Raibert also serves as the chairman of the board at Boston Dynamics, which he founded in 1992. A spin-off from MIT, Boston Dynamics is arguably the most influential pure-play robotics organization in the world, having produced robots such as BigDog, Atlas, Stretch, and Spot – the latter two are available for commercial purchase and used by organizations around the globe.

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Author's Bio

Anika Chakrabarty is a graduate from UC San Diego’s Class of 2023 with a B.S. in Business Economics. She is passionate about business operations and product strategy. Anika led a team in the creation of a business pitch that won the Entrepreneurs of the Year, Best Tech & Demand Opportunity, and Unique Value Proposition awards, conferred by O.P. founder Helen Wang and a panel of other imminent business leaders. Anika currently works in Business Development at Bay Area Community Health, where she forms partnerships with community stakeholders and bolsters community engagement. In her free time, she enjoys playing the violin, backpacking, and long-distance running.

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