Balaji Viswanathan the founder of a robotics company – Invento [Humanoid robots for customer interaction] has a goal to be a pioneer in the emerging field of AI enabled hardware.
During his college days, he was a three times winner of the prestigious medal from the National Design and Research Forum – for his research. As a student, he was invited to meet the most famed President of India at his office for one on one discussions.
As a rising entrepreneur of India, his story could be path of inspiration for young students. Read out to find the innovative ideas led by Balaji.
You are a Robotics Engineer. Can you share a little on what is robotics engineering for students who have no idea of this field and the things they would be learning there to build a career upon?
Robotics is a huge category with about 40+ subcategories. These include robotics for delivering items on the road to self-driving cars, industrial robots of dozens of types, floor cleaning robots, humanoid robots for service industries and security robots in military and other applications.
Some of the relevant things for students to learn include: foundations of mechanical engineering (esp kinematics), control systems, computer vision, Python programming.
You say that your goal is to build the world’s best social robot. What do we mean by social robot? Please explain.
A social robot is one that engages humans in a variety of tasks in social settings. From your receptionist to car salesmen to hotel concierge and nursing assistance, robots would come into spheres that involve a direct interaction with humans where 80% of the common tasks will be done by robots, with the humans brought in for the remaining 20% of the cases.
For building social robots, we focus on the quality of conversations you can have with the robot with better context, using computer vision to understand implicit things in a conversation, using a humanoid form factor to build trust and empathy and ability to move around in a way people can relate with.
Why according to you Robots can fetch better sales and customer satisfaction as compared to a human salesperson?
Human sales people can be pressurising and you are less likely to ask a lot of questions to a human salesperson. Thus, if you are in a car showroom, you might be more comfortable dealing with a robot that is not pushing you into a sale, that is not going to be irritated by 100s of questions and that can remember all the interactions that you have had anywhere with the robot to make it very smart. And the robots will be multilingual and can bring content from a variety of places in easy ways to show to you.
According to you, how far have you already achieved your mission and how much is still left?
We are probably 20% there. There is a huge road ahead for the entire industry.
What is your typical day like?
My typical day is 50% of time meetings with customers and team members to coordinate things. Remaining time I work on R&D with my team on producing new features and new robots.
Most Indian students are more inclined towards software rather than the hardware side. Why do you think it is good or it is not good for a balanced need for engineering?
People think hardware doesn’t pay or that hardware involves sweaty work in hot Sun. We have been programmed to think that sitting inside and working is a good thing and going outside to work is a bad thing. It is a cultural thing we have to fight.
What is your message for students?
Whether you are an engineer or an artist, your future is going to be based on how well you can create things. Whether an wireframe or business opportunity or a new innovation to an existing problem — your salaries will be dependent on creating things. If you don’t create new things and develop human empathy towards others, robots could automate you.
(Balaji Vishwanathan was part of the inaugural FLAME Origins Program, the startup accelerator by FLAME University in Pune)