Friday, April 30, 2010

Making vs. Selling Stuff; Sidebar on Goldman Sachs

Robotics is the science, design, theory, fabrication and application of doing things with robots.  Manufacturing robots is the industry sector devoted to providing those robotic tools to industry.  It is a big business worldwide although not so big in the U.S.  In the last dozen years things have worsened in American robotics and what follows are many of the reasons why. [Lack of investment in R&D is another reason but that's a subject I've discussed repeatedly.]

Much discussion is being focused in Congress, recent books, articles, and in the media, on the financial crisis and the contributing factors to that crisis.  Omitting until the end the role of Goldman Sachs, one important factor about the crisis must not be overlooked said James Kwak of The Baseline Scenario:
Remember that financial services are an intermediate product -- that is, we don't eat them, or live in them, or put them on in the morning.  They are supposed to enable a more efficient allocation of capital, so that the non-financial economy is more productive. But what we saw since the 1980s was the unmooring of the financial sector from the rest of the economy.  
Financial services are supposed to serve our economy; not be the economy.  Yet the trend is otherwise... over 40% of the profits of the entire US corporate sector went to the financial industry.  As a reference, in 1970 it was 4%!

Paul Krugman wrote:
A growing body of analysis suggests that an oversized financial industry is hurting the broader economy.  Shrinking the oversized industry won't make Wall Street happy, but what's bad for Wall Street would be good for America.
Martin Wolf, of the Financial Times, wrote:
...the financial sector seems to be a machine to transfer income and wealth from outsiders to insiders, while increasing the fragility of the economy as a whole."
Even the ethic has changed.  Doing things with ones hands - the pride in the skill and craft of so doing - used to be our ethic; now it's who can earn the most money.

The real issue is that America has changed from a hands-on country to one that sells the products of others. As more and more production and service jobs go off-shore, only financial services are staying behind.  And as Andrew Sorkin said on the Charlie Rose show last week: many of these instruments on Wall Street, it's really just a casino, there is no underlying assets, they don't actually own these devices; people aren't getting mortgages because of this... What is the social utility of that?
All of this can be seen in the difference between the growth of the robotics industries in America and everywhere else.  America used to develop, design and manufacture their robots.  Then they only developed and designed them - the products were built off-shore.  Now much of the non-defense design is being done elsewhere and manufactured off shore without America having a piece of the pie.  Most of the iRobot products sold to the DoD are manufactured offshore!

There was a telling quote from John Dulchinos, the CEO of Adept, during an interview by GetRobo's Noriko Kageki:
Did you know that there are a billion cell phones per year being made globally of which 200-300 million are sold in the U.S. but not a single one is built in the U.S.? Ten years ago that was not the case. If the industry can’t remain competitive, then there are no jobs. And robots are automating tasks no longer done by hand.  But in almost all cases those people are redeployed into other applications in the plant and allow the plant to grow and get much more efficient.
Sidebar about Goldman Sachs

From a blog entry in The Huffington Post by Senator Carl Levin:
Most investors make the assumption that people selling them securities want those securities to succeed. That's how our markets ought to work, but they don't always. The Senators who in the 1930s investigated the causes of the Great Depression stated the principle clearly:
[Investors] must believe that their investment banker would not offer them the bonds unless the banker believed them to be safe. This throws a heavy responsibility upon the banker. He may and does make mistakes. There is no way that he can avoid making mistakes because he is human and because in this world, things are only relatively secure. There is no such thing as absolute security. But while the banker may make mistakes, he must never make the mistake of offering investments to his clients which he does not believe to be good.
Goldman documents make clear that in 2007 it was betting heavily against the housing market while it was selling investments in that market to its clients. It sold those clients high-risk mortgage-backed securities and CDOs that it wanted to get off its books in transactions that created a conflict of interest between Goldman's bottom line and its clients' interests.
These findings are deeply troubling. They show a Wall Street culture that, while it may once have focused on serving clients and promoting commerce, is now all too often simply self-serving. The ultimate harm here is not just to clients poorly served by their investment bank. It's to all of us. The toxic mortgages and related instruments that these firms injected into our financial system have done incalculable harm to people who had never heard of a mortgage-backed security or a CDO, and who have no defenses against the harm such exotic Wall Street creations can cause.
Levin went on to say that: 
Running through our findings and these hearings is a thread that connects the reckless actions of mortgage brokers at WaMu with market-driven credit rating agencies and the Wall Street executives designing the next synthetic. That thread is unbridled greed, and the absence of a cop on the beat to control it.
I couldn't agree more.  I'm pained to see this happening during my lifetime.  

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

6 Projections for the Future of Surgical Automation and Biomedical Robotics

Surgical automation and biomedical robotics - new keywords to add to our lexicon of descriptors for the healthcare segment of the robotics industry.

These and other keywords were presented at Saturday's full-day Conference on Medical Robotics held on the campus of Stanford University in the James H. Clark Center (Jim Clark = Silicon Graphics + Netscape, sailor (297' Athena) and philanthropist).

The speakers list was impressive: Fred Moll, MD, CEO of Hansen Medical (previously CEO of Intuitive Surgical); Calvin Maurer, VP, Accuray (Cyberknife); Catherine Mohr, MD, Intuitive Surgical (TED video presenter); William Bargar, MD, inventor of the ROBODOC; Pablo Garcia from SRI and lead integrator of the SRI/DARPA collaboration Trauma Pod; PhDs from CMU, Johns Hopkins, UC Santa Cruz, GRASP at U Penn, UC Berkeley, and prominent venture capitalists such as Jay Watkins, managing director of De Novo Ventures.  From talks, to demos to a final panel on the future of medical robotics... plenty of information about automating the operating room and providing new devices to assist surgeons and other healthcare professionals in providing cost-efficient and highly effective medical care.  All the presenters were available for questions and trading business cards.

I was also affected by the audience: lean, attentive, med and biomed students, job and money seekers, and quite a few VCs.

Plenty of complaints about the FDA, patents and patent protection, research and venture funding, and problems in marketing robotic products to surgeons.  Plenty of insights into the process of bringing an invention to market.  The history of how ROBODOC came to market is an exercise in patience, patents,  legal difficulties, funding to keep the business going during the many years of FDA trials, changes in management, all the while keeping the newly invented product protected and up-to-date.  Fascinating.

Projections about medical automation in the immediate future:
  1. The inevitability of black box-like data trails in most forthcoming medical robotic inventions.
  2. The role of surgeons changing from compartmentalized to complete transparency.
  3. More devices that perform their functions autonomously.
  4. Automated scrub and circulating nurses, and tele-consulting in the operating room, are likely to happen shortly.
  5. It's also likely that there will be automation in tissue suturing and bonding and also in anesthesiology. 
  6. Embedded into many new systems are arms from KUKA, Peak Robotics and other industrial and lab robot providers.  These companies have to diversify to stay afloat which is why they are bringing their wide range of products and capabilities to healthcare.
    There appeared to be consensus that the age of technological revolution in healthcare is upon us.  It's happening right now... worldwide.  In universities all over the world, as described by the professors and researchers that presented at this conference, incremental progress is being made and translated into products.  (In fact, part of the recent stimulus package distributed through the NIH is assistance in the process of commercialization.) Haptics, augmentation, robotic navigation, standardization, and also far-out sci-fi stuff like the totally robotic trauma pod project were discussed.

    This appears to be the time for role changes, particularly in relation to surgeons. It seems that robotics are leveling the playing field amongst surgeons.  Much has been written about the psychological characteristics of surgeons and their need for compartmentalization in books, studies, web forums, and websites. In this Obama-era of transparency, the silence, lack of statistical outcomes, bravado, excessive ego and other attitudes is coming to an end throughout healthcare as the push for lower costs and better patient outcomes is quantified and pursued.  Instead, the unique problem-solving and solutions skills of surgeons will be emphasized as they manage more complexity and capability in their operating rooms.

    The conference was student-organized by the Stanford Student Biodesign and Biopharma and headed by Alisha Seam.  Very energetic and professional.  I very much appreciated and learned from the experience and offer a hearty thank you to the team of students that made it happen.

    How do you say "surgical robot" in Chinese, Korean and Japanese?

    When you travel to foreign places, Google is there waiting for you. Type in your query and it will find what you want... maybe. If you type "surgical robot" in English while in Hong Kong using you will get entirely different answers than if you were to enter 外科手术机器人 (the same term) in Chinese.  The results are also different if you enter "surgical robot" using Japanese or Korean symbols into the Chinese search engine.

    The term "surgical robot" looks like this in Korean, Japanese and Chinese respectively:
    There are also non-Google search engines for these languages and in each of these countries.  They too have the same anomaly: enter a term in English and get different results than if you enter the same term in the local language.

    Because of this phenomena, and because many of our readers reside in Korea, Japan and China - a major area of robotic development - there are now three new pages: in Japanese, Korean and Chinese, which link directly to The Robot Report.

    Although the pages are in Japanese, Korean and Chinese, the message is the same: visit The Robot Report, an English language website, to view the latest news about the business of robotics.  Also, the site contains a free and extensive worldwide database of public and private companies that are participants in this vital, emerging industry.

    Saturday, April 3, 2010

    Rethinking Singularity

    I have concerns about Ray Kurzweil's Singularity.  The following three stories will show you where I'm coming from and give some background to what I want to say:

    (1) In the '80s, Tom Axworthy, then Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (and now with the Center for the Study of Democracy at Queens U in Kingston, Canada and the Gordon Foundation), spoke before my group, the American Association of Political Consultants, and told why Canadians and other countries distinguished themselves from Americans and American political campaign technology.  He said that Americans pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as a national credo whereas most other societies have as their goals peace, order, liberty and fraternity.  Fraternity being the sharing in the well-being of all of society.  Big difference between the individual pursuit of happiness to the altruistic sharing of the well-being of everyone.  And that difference translates into political orientation, campaign practices and social ethic.  In America elected officials have star status whereas most members of parliaments worldwide are part of the party and not well known.  They are often elected as the x-party member for the y area.  Hence there's less personality and more issue orientation.  Not Barney Frank versus Earl Sholley but instead Liberal versus Tory.  Axworthy's talk has stuck with me to this day because I strongly believe in his version of Fraternity and what it means for society and the future.  Also it was one of the many reasons I chose to sell off and quit my activities in politics.

    (2) Ray Kurzweil's projections of logarithmic (exponentially accelerating) technological progress - particularly in the fields of robotics, biotechnology and nanotechnology - leading to a "singularity" or merging of these super-intelligent sciences sometime between 2040 and 2045, a merging where differentiating between a human with consciousness and a robot-like device acting as if it had consciousness, has been fascinating to me because I'm a technology enthusiast, particularly in the areas of computers, AI and robotics. I see it happening just as he says. In robots, genetics, longevity, artificial intelligence, aging, stem cells, and many more sciences, my vision of the future is similar to Kurtzweil's. And this is disturbing because his projections are leading to a conclusion that I don't want for society.

    (3) While driving to and from Lake Tahoe last weekend, some friends and I listened to an audiobook entitled Death Match. Although it was a mystery, it was really about artificial intelligence. It involved a computer dating service that went beyond simple questionnaires and instead merged psychological, medical and financial data along with social data such as travel, movie and book preferences, phone call records, traffic tickets, etc. into a massive database which was then sliced and diced to provide information about the candidates well-beyond what they entered on their initial survey forms. Armed with all that data, the computer did it's match and was quite successful. A discussion occurred about individual boundaries, and computer capabilities. Coincidentally, I had recently listened to a podcast of an AI expert discussing how things were presently done (constructivist) and how they will be done shortly (software developing software). This shed light on what was fictional in the story. The discussion continued to include the fact that the story's software and manipulation of massive databases was available today but that it wasn't going to get too much better until more capable and extensive software could be developed and that was precluded because the present state of the art was constructivist (done by human programmers and limited by their time and capacity). Although software is used to create new computer chips, humans are still cranking out AI software. When AI software becomes self-generating, that's when robotics and other embedded sciences will grow - and the dangers I foresee begin.
      This brings me to a long and old (2000) Wired Magazine article written by Bill Joy, co-founder and network computer scientist of Sun Microsystems, a VC at Kleiner Perkins Greentech and FOO (Friend of Obama).  In the article, Joy worked his way through his own history of thoughts about technology to an evening when he spent some time with Ray Kurzweil and learned, first-hand, what Kurzweil foresaw.
      Ray was saying that the rate of improvement of technology was going to accelerate and that we were going to become robots or fuse with robots or something like that and John [Searle, also at the meeting] countering that this couldn't happen because the robots couldn't be conscious.
      I had always felt sentient robots were in the realm of science fiction.  But now, from someone I respected, I was hearing a strong argument that they were a near-term possibility.  I was taken aback, especially given Ray's proven ability to imagine and create the future.  I already knew that new technologies like genetic engineering and nanotechnology were giving us the power to remake the world, but a realistic and imminent scenario for intelligent robots surprised me.
      Joy wrote pages of his history in thought from then until he met scholar and author Jacques Attali who described his interpretation of Fraternity.
      Jacques helped me understand... Fraternity, whose foundation is altruism. Fraternity alone associates individual happiness with the happiness of others, affording the promise of self-sustainment.
      This crystallized for me my problem with Kurzweil's dream. A technological approach to Eternity - near immortality through robotics - may not be the most desirable utopia, and its pursuit brings clear dangers. Maybe we should rethink our utopian choices.
      I believe we must find alternative outlets for our creative forces, beyond the culture of perpetual economic growth; this growth has largely been a blessing for several hundred years, but it has not brought us unalloyed happiness, and we must now choose between the pursuit of unrestricted and undirected growth through science and technology and the clear accompanying dangers.
      We are getting a belated start on seriously addressing the issues around 21st-century technologies - the prevention of knowledge-enabled mass destruction - and further delay seems unacceptable. 
      It seems to me that Joy's seriousness and concern is well-deserved and appropriate.  I share his concerns fully.  What do you think?