Wanted: A robot with a gentle touch

Think backflipping robot dogs are weird? The next phase of the robot revolution is going to be a little uncomfortable.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

Human-machine collaboration and accessibility have defined the first years of the robot revolution. If I'm placing bets, the hallmark of the next phase of robotic adoption will be dexterity, and a company that's just exited stealth is my Exhibit A.

You probably know that robots are now prolific across a variety of industries that are relatively new to automation (materials handling, energy, logistics, biotech). But most robots are still designed to operate within carefully structured spaces where tasks are repeatable and variation limited. There are plenty of use cases that fit that bill, but for robots to become truly disruptive -- to say nothing of a potential threat to skilled labor -- they will need to be endowed with dexterity that allows for complex manipulation in unpredictable environments. 

We're seeing lots of signs of development in that space. Just this month my colleague covered research out of the National University of Singapore directed at giving robots artificial skin to help them feel, a crucial step in enabling robots to manipulate objects they may never have encountered before. Soft robots have long been a leading area of study for just this reason, relying on compliant materials to emulate the soft touch a human has by nature.

Against this backdrop comes Dexterity Robots, an aptly named startup focusing on intelligent robots with human-like dexterity for logistics, warehousing, and supply chain -- not coincidentally some of the fastest-growing consumers of automation technologies.

"While robots are the backbone of manufacturing, they have historically lacked the ability to adapt and operate in dynamic environments like warehouses," explains Dexterity founder and CEO Samir Menon. "Dexterity's intelligent robots constantly adapt to warehouse operations and do the tedious and strenuous tasks, which maximizes productivity by enabling humans to focus on meaningful work."

They do that by focusing on human-like dexterity. Spinning off Menon's Ph.D. thesis in Robotics from Stanford University, Dexterity was founded in 2017. Its core technology relies on Menon's control theory framework describing how the human brain controls and coordinates the body, which, according to the company, can be translated to mathematical programs that control robots in a graceful human-like manner.

To achieve that level grace in motion, the company has a full-stack approach combining software and existing agile hardware. Its robotic stacks have powerful sensing suites that give them capabilities like touch perception, computer vision, force control, and contextual awareness, and the software and controls are tweaked to meet individual customers' needs. Given that automation has grown of late largely by prioritizing task-agnostic hardware, this level of customization atop a modular, widely adaptable technology stack may start become more standard.

Dexterity is exiting stealth with deep pockets -- the company has raised more than $56 million to date. It's a sign of a progression beyond hardware for automation, which is now on the cusp of a new wave of adoption.

"Technically, Dexterity's robotic solution can do what their predecessors could not. Their robot's ability to learn as it picks, packs, and places novel objects is unsurpassed," said Wen Hsieh, partner at Kleiner Perkins. "Dexterity also stands out because of their high-touch approach with customers, which includes gaining a deep understanding of customers' needs, and then offering a Robots-as-a-Service offering. This unique pricing model allows Dexterity to deploy quickly and effectively, which results in an immediate performance and financial impact on customers' warehouse operations."

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