Huge industrial robots are now a mature industry. Young French entrepreneur Jean-Christophe Baillie believes it is time for them to move from factories to the home. The founder and CEO of robotics software start-up Gostai, Baillie envisions a bold paradigm shift in robotics – and last December he received a big vote of confidence when the judges in the ACES Awards for Academic Enterprise gave him the Microsoft ICT Award. The prize includes an all-expenses-paid three-day visit to Microsoft’s corporate headquarters in Seattle, Washington State.
By Fabrice Delaye
Tagged as “personal robotics”, Baillie’s vision of robots as, say, watchdogs, nurses and cleaners is shared by most robotic developers. But Baillie believes he has found the key to making it a reality. He has developed operating software that can be used in any robotics platform, in the way that MS DOS and Windows enabled personal computing 30 years ago.
Baillie’s story goes back to the Sony Computer Lab opened by the electronics company some 15 years ago near to France’s elite Ecole Normale Supérieure. There, while working with Sony’s robotic dog Aibo, Baillie realised what artificial intelligence needed to progress: failure.
After all, to acquire intelligence, a human being has to go through trial and error. Why would it be different for an artificial intelligence? Of course, that means that a computer should be able to interact with its environment. But that is exactly what a computer embedded in a robot can do.
This kind of research can take years to develop in relatively isolated labs. Baillie realised that he could accelerate the process by enabling a community of developers to share and improve their software discoveries, so creating an even bigger community of robots learning by doing. Baillie’s solution: found a commercial company able to serve those communities.
Going back to the drawing board, Baillie designed a new operating system that would be open source, easy to use and powerful. Named Urbi, this software allows functions such as face and language recognition, location sensing. It was an instant hit among robotic developers.
To grow this emerging ecosystem Baillie made the first step from lab to market in 2006 with the incorporation of Gostai, a contraction of Ghost Artificial Intelligence – a robot in the cult manga series Ghost in the Shell.
Business angels networks and in particular XMP, an angel organisation set up by alumni of the Ecole Polytechnique, the Ecole des Mines and the Ecole des Ponts, have bought into his vision, helping Gostai to secure close to a million euros to date. That money has been the key to the launch of Gostai’s main initiative to date: GostaiNet.
With Gostai a robot can learn to speak, to recognise objects or to read emails or documents on the Internet. But those features require typically large processing capabilities, something you don’t find in a low-cost robot. So Baillie modified its business plan to benefit from the emerging possibilities of cloud computing and software as a service. As with Apple’s App Store, developers will be able to post new apps for robots on GostaiNet for customers to download.
GostaiNet has now gained now the ears of large telecommunications operators, which like its subscription model. With the pieces of personal robotics now falling into place, Gostai reckons it has secured a central role in this emerging market.