Teen innovator envisions consumer robots and robot 'app' store

David Luan came to the United States from China at age six, started college courses at eight and now, at 19, is the recipient of a $100,000 grant for his tech innovations.
Written by Christina Hernandez Sherwood, Contributing Writer

David Luan came to the United States from China at age six, started college courses at eight and now, at 19, is the recipient of a $100,000 grant for his tech innovations. A member of the first class of Thiel Fellows, Luan is taking two years off from Yale University to follow his passion -- robotics.

From high school lab work and independent research projects to a stint with the iRobot Corporation, Luan has already spent five years doing robotic work and research. We spoke last week about his next big project: an app store for robots.

What do you work on related to robots?

I work on software. [My work] was always to try to teach them new intelligent behavior they didn't know how to do already. For example, the previous summer I worked on teaching robots how to follow objects from looking at a video.

You want to create home robots that can do cognitive tasks and physical jobs. What does that mean?

Currently, if you go buy a robot it does one mechanical task, whether it's vacuum your floor or mow your lawn. It only does one thing. It's like a mechanized appliance on wheels. If you want it to do anything else, you either can't or you have to jump through a lot of hoops.

I want to get to a point where we have an ecosystem of robots in which each robot can have its functionality extended by new hardware. [And its functionality can be extended] by new software, like the Apple app store model in which any developer can write code for a robot to do new things. It's like a mashup between the IBM PC model and the iPhone model. Robots will be able to do tasks they don't already know how to do. You should be able to write software to teach it to do new things.

In order to get to a point where people will want multi-purpose consumer robots, they have to do pretty advanced things. They have to be able to learn how to do new things from each other. That's primarily what I want to work on. For example, say I sold three separate robots. Robot A knows how to clean Oven A. Robot B knows how to clean this different Oven B. You have a new robot who faces an oven that doesn't quite look like A or B. It should be able to identify that there are other robots made by this company that know how to do these tasks and [it should] try to fuse the solutions to those problems into solving a third. That's the first thing I want to work on as part of this fellowship.

What got you into this and what motivates you to do this work?

I started taking computer science classes at my local state college when I was eight. I went with my dad and sat in on class. I took this awesome robotics course, which is originally what got me into it.

You take a collection of things that are relatively simple -- hardware, bits of software -- and you put them together. You get a result that is much more than the sum of its parts. The interactions between those pieces are extremely complex and lead to really interesting things. This is what inspires me. With robotics, you can focus on individual building blocks of a problem that you're trying to solve, each of which are simple. When you put them together you get a solution that's more complicated than any individual building block. That's intriguing to me. It's something that keeps me going. I know that if I focus on solving small problems each time, I'll get a really awesome answer.

What's your ultimate goal, even beyond your fellowship?

It's simple. Robots can do anything the computer can do. There is a computer in every robot. We have to tap into the full potential of the fact that what you're working with is essentially a computing platform that can change its physical surroundings. My end goal is for robots to take over from the current method of computation in which the primary object you interact with is a robot. If you want to do X, you go to that app store I was talking about and download a program for that robot made by a developer. If the robot doesn't come with an arm, there should be a standardized format for developers to develop an arm for you to purchase and extend its functionality. Think of everything you do with your computer now and add the ability for said computer to physically interact with the world. That's what I want robotics to be.

Photo: David Luan

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