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Robots on the Brain

A San Diego startup moves to make robots more intelligent


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Dr. Eugene Izhikevich is co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Brain Corporation. | Photo by Taryn Kent

Robots haven’t taken over the world just yet, but the demand for autonomous, moving, smart machines is growing. The popularity of the iRobot Roomba vacuum has skyrocketed recently, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what robots of the future will be able to do—when armed with human-like brains developed in San Diego.

Cashing in on the boom is Brain Corporation, co-founded in 2009, with initial funding from Qualcomm, by computational neuroscientist Eugene Izhikevich. Known for creating a computer model that simulates the same number and speed of neurons and synapses as the human brain, Izhikevich says arming robots with the human-like brain will enable them to learn just about anything.

Think about what Microsoft did for the PC,” says Izhikevich. “We want to be Microsoft for robots, to give them the operating system, the intelligence.”

The company makes bStem, a tiny brain that any entrepreneur can buy and integrate into a product to give it robotic capabilities like seeing, hearing, moving, sensing, and even anticipating motion. So whether it’s a toy doll, a pooper-scooper, or a lawnmower, the bStem basically provides brainpower to any device. “We want to make it really easy to make robotic stuff for any entrepreneur,” Izhikevich says. “It should be as quick and painless as app production.”

San Diego’s emerging as a hub in the robotics industry, which is expected to reach $67 billion in spending annually by 2025, according to the Boston Consulting Group. Today, the world spends about $25 billion per year on robotics, including manufacturing robots, drones, consumer products, and medical devices.

"Think about what Microsoft did for the PC,” says Izhikevich. “We want to be Microsoft for robots, to give them the operating system, the intelligence.”

A robot enabled with a bStem works much like a human brain, with high-functioning optical and sensory capabilities. It can locate itself and remember and record high-quality images and video. And with Qualcomm’s mobile processor inside (the same one that’s in so many millions of smartphones), a robot armed with a bStem brain will also be WiFi-enabled, to connect to others—robots, humans or other networks—and adapt in real time. So not only could a robot do the poop-scooping in your yard, but it could also sense right when the dog does it. Or learn to move around the tree you planted, or adjust to artificial turf.

Izhikevich says his small, relatively inexpensive, and highly intelligent bStem is the kind of thing that will lead to an “explosion” in consumer products with robotic capabilities.

“We were early backers of Brain Corp. and think they have a great vision,” says Houman Haghighi, staff manager of operations for Qualcomm’s investment arm, Qualcomm Ventures.

Qualcomm is betting on a robotics boom in a big way. Along with funding companies like Brain Corp. and 3D Robotics, a fast-growing consumer drone manufacturer, Qualcomm is also launching an on-campus incubator called Qualcomm Accelerator, which will select, mentor, and fund 10 emerging robotics companies from all over the country. “Robotics is nothing new for us. We’ve been spending time in robotics for a long time. There are a lot of points of resistance in the industry that we can remove,” says director of engineering Chad Sweet, about the company’s move to mentor young companies. “We can support them from a fundraising and pitch standpoint, and help identify the right partners. We can provide an environment where they can build their companies and presence in San Diego.”

And for Russian-born, Michigan-educated Izhikevich, there’s no place he’d rather run his business. He says the climate here is definitely a factor and a helpful recruiting tool (“Going on vacation is hard for me because it’s like I live in a vacation place”), but he also notes the overall perfect storm of an ecosystem that’s developing in the robotics space: a UC San Diego computer science program dedicated to robotic research; many small robotics and drone companies starting up and pushing each other to innovate, along with Qualcomm as an anchor and leader in mobile technology; and Mexico right next door with efficient manufacturing capabilities. So while Boston, Pittsburgh, and Silicon Valley have an established foothold in robotics, San Diego’s developing a competitive edge. “The best minds want to work here,” says Izhikevich. “You can have your morning coffee at the office, visit the manufacturing facility in Mexico in the afternoon, and be home for dinner with your family.” While a robot mows your lawn.

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