One perk of working for Melonee Wise’s startup Fetch is that if your feet are tired you can glide around the office on the back of a squat wheeled robot. More usually, she and her roughly 50 employees keep themselves busy designing, building, and selling the machines to work in warehouses or factories across the globe. The San Jose company’s machines are canny enough to work safely alongside people without requiring any changes to a facility—all they need is a map. Wise, one of MIT Technology Review’s 2015 Innovators Under 35, built her first robot, Zippy, in college, out of plywood and scavenged computer parts. She spoke with San Francisco bureau chief Tom Simonite.
Do your robots replace people?
No one has ever lost a job because of our robots. Customers need us because they just can’t hire enough people. There’s 20 percent annual turnover and an estimated 600,000 jobs in the United States going unfilled.
Did I just see a robot go past the door of this meeting room carrying a box of cookies?
That’s snackbot. We use our commercial software internally, and you can type into Slack and say “Robot, I’m hungry,” and it brings cookies to you. The team uses that because it’s fun and you don’t have to walk to the kitchen, but it also gets them closer to the product.
Why do you market the versions of your robots with arms and grippers only to researchers, not for warehouse work?
Today it costs about $40,000 to lift up a gallon of milk—that’s the cost of a robotic arm that can do that. We’re trying to lower the cost—for example, by reducing the number of components in a motor. We’re also working on programming the robot by demonstration—basically teaching it a task by hand.
What kinds of relationships do people have with your robots?
Some kind of projection of emotion is inevitable, and you want it to be safe and productive. Making the robot much shorter than a person helps people perceive it more as a child than an adult. A lot of people associate our robots with puppies: they call them pups. We want that, because people are much more inclined to help something that seems simple.
There’s a lot of excitement about robots advancing quickly thanks to machine learning. Do you buy it?
I think people are very bad at predicting time lines in the evolution of products. And there are false indicators in the world that give people the perception that things are moving faster than they are. One is facial recognition in things like Facebook. All of that is predicated on a person being centered in the image and well lit. If the lights in this room were very dim, I could probably figure out who you are, but a robot would have no hope in hell. People aren’t wrong to get excited. But personally I have a hard time even imagining in my lifetime that we’ll have generalized home-purpose robots for cleaning and doing dinner.
When you founded Fetch, you designed and built the first robots. Now that you have customers, has your job changed?
I’ve become more and more focused on not just making the robots work but making sure that we know where they’re going to work. I have been absurdly focused on usability in the last year and a half. For many of the people who interface with our technology on a day-to-day basis in a warehouse, the Web browser is already a challenge. Adding robots into the mix is like dropping an elephant on them.
Not many Silicon Valley founders are women. Is it harder to make it as a female founder?
I haven’t lived through a guy’s experience, so it’s really hard to say. There are only a couple of instances where I’ve run into some awkwardness around being a woman, most of the time on the subject of what my personal family planning goals are. It’s so hard to be a founder anyway—it takes the right person, and that isn’t specific to men or women. But some things I perceive as a little bit easier. One is hiring [diverse candidates]. I think women and other minorities don’t opt out when applying [to Fetch] because they look at the Web page and see myself and the diversity of the staff that we already have.
What causes the lack of diversity in tech?
How do you blame an industry for being full of men when the pool that they’re pulling from is full of men? If you look at my childhood, my dad’s side of the family was like, “Yes, do it—get an education.” My mom’s side was like, “You’re wasting your time—you need to go start a family, focus on the things that you are good at because you’re a woman.” I did pick a side, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard to hear.
You said no one has lost a job to a Fetch robot, but over time, aren’t products like yours going to displace human workers?
There will be displacement. All technology does it. But this is not a technology discussion, this is a socio-political discussion. Technology is going to continue to advance, and technology always creates jobs. Long term, as Fetch deploys more robots, we’ll need more people to maintain the robots, to program the robots, to install the robots. Those jobs are coming. The question is, will the people whose jobs are displaced be retrained to do the new jobs that are available? Typically, training is motivated through social, political, and economic means—incentivizing companies or making college free. I personally believe that we as a country should move toward universal basic income.
How would that be different from existing state support?
I was on welfare most of my childhood, and it didn’t get you everything. I still had to stand in food lines and go to food pantries. I think of universal basic income as saying we all have the right to live our lives and experience the basic standards of life—and anything above that is yours to get.
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