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Ex-Googlers meld humans & machines at new cobotics startup Formant

Our distinct skill sets and shortcomings mean people and robots will join forces for the next few decades. Robots are tireless, efficient and reliable, but in a millisecond through intuition and situational awareness, humans can make decisions gagdet can’t. Until workplace robots are truly autonomous and don’t demand any human being reasoning
, we’ll need app to manage them at scale. Formant comes out of stealth today to “aid people
 speak automaton,” says co-founder and CEO Jeff Linnell. “What’s really going to move the needle in the innovation economy is using humans as an empowering component in automation.”

Linnell learned the grace of uniting flesh and steel while working on the film Gravity. “We put cameras and Sandra Bullock on dollies,” he bluntly recalls. Artistic vision and robotic precision combined to create gorgeous zero-gravity scenes that made audiences feel weightless. Google bought his startup Bot & Dolly, and Linnell spent four years there as a director of robotics while forming his thesis.

Now with Formant, he wants to make hybrid workforce cooperation feel frictionless.

The company has raised a $6 million seed circular from SignalFire, a data-driven VC fund with app for recruiting engineers. Formant is launching its closed beta that equips businesses with cloud infrastructure for collecting, making sense of and acting on data from fleets of robots. It allows a solo human being to manage 10, 20 or 100 machines, stepping in to clear confusion when they aren’t sure what to do.

“The tooling is 10 years behind the web,” Linnell explains. “If you build a data company today, you’ll use AWS or Google Cloud, but that simply doesn’t exist for robotics. We’re building that layer.”

a beautiful marriage

“This is going to sound completely strange,” Formant CTO Anthony Jules warns me. “I had a recurring dream [as a child] in which I was a ship captain and I had a small mechanical parrot on my should that would look at situations and aid me decide what to do as we’d sail the seas trying to elude this octopus. Since then I knew that building intelligent machines is what I would do in this world.”

So he went to MIT, left a robotics PhD software to build a startup named
Sapient Corporation that he built into a 4,000-employee public company, and worked on the Tony Hawk video games. He too joined Google through an acquisition, meeting Linnell after Redwood Robotics, where he was COO, got acquired. “We came up with some similar beliefs. There are a few places where full autonomy will actually work, but it’s really about creating a beautiful marriage of what machines are good at and what humans are good at,” Jules tells me.

Formant now has SaaS pilots running with businesses in several verticals to make their “automaton-shaped data” usable. They range from food manufacturing to heavy infrastructure inspection to building, and even training animals. Linnell also foresees retail increasingly employing fleets of robots not just in the warehouse but on the showroom floor, and they’ll demand exact coordination.

What’s distinct about Formant is it doesn’t build the bots. Instead, it builds the reins for people to deftly regulate them.

First, Formant connects to sensors to fill up a cloud with LiDAR, depth imagery, video, photos, log files, metrics, engine torques and scalar values. The app parses that data and when something goes wrong or the system isn’t sure how to move forward, Formant alerts the human being “foreman” that they need to intervene. It can monitor the fleet, sniff out the source of errors, and suggest options for what to do next.

For instance, “when an autonomous digger encounters an obstacle in the foundation of a building site, an operator is necessary to evaluate whether it is safe for the automaton to proceed or stop,” Linnell writes. “This preference is made in tandem: the rich data gathered by the automaton is easily interpreted by a human being but arduous or legally questionable for a gagdet. This preference still depends on the value judgment of the human being, and will change depending on if the obstacle is a gas main, a boulder, or an electrical wire.”

Any solo data stream alone can’t reveal the mysteries that arise, and people would struggle to juggle the distinct feeds in their minds. But not only can Formant align the data for humans to act on, it also can turn their choices into priceless training data for artificial intelligence. Formant learns, so next moment the gagdet won’t need assistance.

The industrial revolution, continued

With rock-star talent poached from Google and tides lifting all automated boats, Formant’s biggest danger is tournament from tech giants. Old engineering companies like SAP could attempt to adapt to the brand-new real-moment data type, yet Formant hopes to out-code them. Google itself has built reliable cloud scaffolding and has robotics experience from Boston Dynamics, plus buying Linnell’s and Jules’ companies. But the enterprise customization necessary to connect with distinct clients isn’t typical for the search juggernaut.

Linnell fears that companies that attempt to build their own automaton management app could get hacked. “I worry about people who do homegrown solutions or don’t have the experience we have from being at a place like Google. Putting robots online in an insecure route is a beautiful evil problem.” Formant is looking to crush any bugs before it opens its platform to customers in 2019.

With moment, humans will become less and less necessary, and that will surface big societal challenges for employment and welfare. “It’s in some ways an extension of the industrial revolution,” Jules opines. “We take some of this for granted but it’s been happening for 100 years. Photographer — that’s a profession that doesn’t exist without the gagdet that they use. We think that transformation will continue to happen across the workforce.”


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