Fire. The wheel. The salad spinner. We are a species of inventors at heart. Our curiosity ushered us from knuckle-dragging Neanderthals to the most advanced animals on the planet. Today, the possibilities for invention and creation seem almost endless: Concepts once only mused about are evolving at light speed. In the 805, there are individuals striving to update our society both locally and globally.
ONE H.A.L. OF AN IDEA
Name: Kevin Knoedler
Job description: Stay-at-home dad, ground-breaking software programmer
Company: Coordinated Robotics
Invention: NASA Award-winning humanoid robotics software
The recent advancements in robotics AI (artificial intelligence) software for space exploration and mission assistance are making it a soon-to-be reality. One does not have to make a pilgrimage to the microchip Mecca of Silicon Valley to observe this rapidly expanding industry. One of the brightest stars in the field is shining right in our backyard.
Hailing from Newbury Park, Kevin Knoedler, a former engineer and engineering manager at Teradyne and now stay-at-home dad, is the sole member of Coordinated Robotics and the digital architect of a software program that won first place in NASA’s Space Robotics Competition. Accepting entries from across the world, the competition asked teams to develop software that would command, in a virtual environment, NASA’s Valkyrie R5 humanoid robot to perform several interpretive functions. Using software coding as a means of AI, Knoedler (a veteran of TV shows Battlebots and Robot Wars), emerged victorious, and was awarded a hefty $125,000 purse.
“I’ve been interested [in] doing robotics contests for a number of years,” Knoedler said. “And this one looked both challenging and interesting . . . This particular contest was done in a simulator, and so you could bring up the simulator and see the robot in three dimensions on your computer screen and apply the software to perform the tasks.”
Knoedler also netted a compensatory $50,000 for miraculously completing each of the three tasks — aligning an antenna, removing a solar panel and connecting it to a cable, and walking up a flight of stairs to identify and fix a leak — without error. Knoedler’s software (built in C++ language) functioned impeccably.
“With this, for example, you can tell the robot to change the angle of its elbow to 15 degrees, which is a low-level function,” Knoedler said, explaining for the technical layman the basic theories behind his AI software. “Through sequences of these you can cause the robot to complete higher-level tasks in an automated sense. But if you had to do this programming individually for every joint to move, you wouldn’t succeed. So what you end up doing is building more automation into the robot, giving it more intelligence to be able to complete things on its own.”
This topic is causing Silicon Valley magnates Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk to exchange “cyber-beef” through various social media outlets. Zuckerberg sees little reason for a fear-based view of AI, highlighting the various ways a humanoid machine may aid humans, from daily house chores to medical research. Musk, on the other hand, is not as convinced. He spoke recently at a meeting of governors on the potential dangers of AI, citing it as a major risk factor for human civilization. As with any controversial topic, opinions will lie on both sides of the bed. Knoedler offered his view on the issue, noting the various ways that AI robotics are about to impact the workforce.
“One of the ways for humanoid robotics to aid is in disaster relief, particularly in areas that are hazardous to humans. Places where there is a chemical spill or radioactivity, something like that. The humanoid robot could use the pre-existing tools made for people and be able to go in and operate in that environment without putting a person at risk.”
Considering the advancements that are currently taking place, as well as those yet to come, we may be entering a new phase of human culture; hopefully, one that allows us the freedom to discover our archetypes and help shift us toward a new Renaissance of enlightenment and creation. At the very least, maybe we won’t have to clean the house anymore.
GETTING A LITTLE CULTURE
Name: John Silva
Job description: Interpreter of wild ideas, chief dot-connector and strategic brand developer
Invention: Tempeh-making machine
From “meatless Mondays” to a virtual cornucopia of whistle-blowing
documentaries streaming on Netflix, there has been a growing buzz surrounding the social awareness of our food sources. Many of us are trying to do our part, but one question remains: What to cook? John Silva has an answer.
Silva, along with cofounders Steven and Joy DuPuis, have created TempehSure, a revolutionary tempeh-making machine that can help confused consumers become acquainted with a nutritious and sustainable plant-based protein source. Simply add the ingredients to the machine, close the door, press a button, and 24 hours later — tempeh.
“There are two mindsets behind TempehSure,” Silva explained. “The first is wanting to make a positive impact on our food system; we are very passionate about that. And number 2 would be doing something that’s good for the environment, in terms of where our food is sourced from and what is good for people. We realized there’s an unsustainable model when it comes to the larger meat-protein complex.”
A 2006 study by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions were directly linked to livestock production, more than the emissions produced by the entire transportation sector. The L.A. Times ran an article in 2014 noting that it takes 660 gallons of water to put that one-third pound hamburger on your plate. These studies deem TempehSure’s mission statement to be one that is easy to get behind. So easy, in fact, that TempehSure was nominated for an award at the 2014 Natural Health Expo, and also reached a lofty Kickstarter goal of $100,000.
So what, exactly, is tempeh?
“Tempeh has been a mainstay in Indonesia for probably a thousand years,” Silva said. “It’s generally fermented soy beans with a starter culture. . . Globally, Rhizopus oligosporus is known as the best starter culture for making tempeh.”
This culture proved to be a challenging obstacle, however, as Silva struggled to find a level of consistency. He decided to halt the Indonesian outsourcing and find a new means of production.
“So we actually developed our own organic starter culture here in the United States, in a well-recognized, food-safe organic laboratory,” Silva said.
After solving that issue, the three major components of machine, culture and bean (note that consumers are not limited to soy beans; many legumes and nuts may be used as well) came together in harmony and the TempehSure was born. The company now offers a home version as well as a commercial-grade. Even some of L.A.’s hippest chefs are using the machine, such as Tal Ronnen of vegan hotspot Crossroads Kitchen on Melrose. This new addition to the menu is not only a champion of the planet, but tastes damn good as well.
A CHILD’S BEST FRIEND
Name: Ralph Morin
Job description: Robotics engineer and designer
Company: Scholastic Robotics
Invention: Ricky, the self-learning therapy robot
The Terminator notwithstanding, not all machines are meant to be killbots.
Some are actually here to help us out. Meet Ricky, a self-learning therapy “dogbot” serving children with autism.
Ralph Morin, who lives in Malibu on the county line, is Ricky’s Geppetto. Growing up on a rural farm in Maine, Morin enlisted in the Air Force, and served during the Korean War. He then transitioned into a missile launch technician at Vandenberg AFB, learning extensively about advanced electronics. After his time at Vandenberg, Morin decided to embark on an entirely different journey, exploring Southern California’s early ’60s beatnik culture. Later, he enrolled in the School of Motion Picture Production at UCLA. Several years of filmmaking followed, covering such genres as entertainment, industrial, educational and documentary. When Morin was ready to move on to a new calling, however, there was strong push to make the world a better place.
“I was working for my son as a data manager, and I was appalled at the way kids were graduating without the basic knowledge of operating a checkbook. So I mentioned to a friend at work that ‘We should really do something about that, make a fun mathematics and economics program,’ and he said, ‘Good. I’ll start writing some code.’ Then I had another friend who was working at a center for autism as the CFO, and so I asked if he thought his boss would be interested. He said, ‘no.’ ”
But Morin decided to schedule a meeting anyway. The boss ultimately passed on the software, but asked if he knew anything about robotics. Morin happened to be friends with one of Hollywood’s most well-known robotic effects specialists. Before long, he was hard at work bringing Ricky to life.
Around this time, Morin learned about the data surrounding children with autism. According to autismpolicyblog.com, a study conducted in Utah among high school students with disabilities showed that children with autism had a less than 50 percent graduation rate in the standard four-year period. Factor in the Individuals with Disabilities Act of 2006 (IDEA), setting the maximum age at 21 for students with disabilities to stay in the public system, and the lines become somewhat blurry. There seems to be no finite solution in sight to teaching children with autism, partly because the spectrum of specialized care is so wide. This complication was part of the impetus for creating Ricky.
“The goal of Ricky is to get him to help children communicate,” Morin explained. “Children with autism can be fearful of working with humans . . . They may seem nervous or shy and withdrawn. But we have had instances where kids who are nonverbal, typically between the ages of 6 and 7, will play with Ricky for 20 minutes and they actually tried to talk for the first time in their life. And therapists are blown away.”
Ricky is linked up to a tablet and asks and responds to a series of preprogrammed questions and answers. For example, a therapist or the child can push a button in the color section, and Ricky will ask the child to name “things that are yellow.” It will respond to the child’s response. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
“When we get an order to buy a Ricky, we work with the client for three weeks and we build Ricky for that particular client. Because every kid with autism has different needs, and that takes working with the client,” Morin said. “Children with autism are overflowing with stimuli; it all happens at once for them. There’s no moderation.”
These kinds of heartwarming stories give hope to the growing number of parents who have struggles raising a child with autism. Morin has recently been showcasing Ricky in Camarillo, Newbury Park and Simi Valley, and his newest Ricky model will soon be available for retail at $1,500. Seems like a small price to pay for changing a child’s life.
LET’S GET IT STARTUP’ED IN HERE
Name: Gary Livingston
Job description: Vice president
Company: 805 Startups
Invention: Multimedia marketing and platform
Walking into the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza for 805 Startups’ summer
demo competition, it feels as if one has stepped into a scene from Silicon Valley. Smartphones and tablets cast a dim glow. Business cards are exchanging hands as though it’s a blackjack table in Vegas. Well-dressed 20somethings speed around with Bluetooths and Adam Levine haircuts. “Geek squad” culture has moved at high speed to the head of 21st-century zeitgeist, and in this New Age Renaissance, Gary Livingston, vice president of 805 Startups, is your guide.
Livingston joined 805 Startups this past January to partner with company president and childhood friend Alon Goren, bringing along his marketing skills to help with expansion. Having a background in event production, entertainment management, street-team building and user experience research and design, Livingston began conceptualizing the possibilities for spreading 805 Startups’ mission statement, “We Grow Individuals, Companies, & Communities.”
“Our whole philosophy is approaching this like an ecosystem in nature, where you need all of the different entities that exist, all the different organisms to thrive independently, as well as thrive together,” Livingston said. “We’re focused on connecting investors, start-ups, people of different talents, students, educators, educational institutions, corporations and small businesses of all types and sizes. That’s everything from a bike shop to a restaurant to a medical lab. They all are part of the economy, therefore they’re all part of the ecosystem.”
This form of networking is a vital thread now woven into the modern business tapestry. By providing forums for up-and-coming inventors/entrepreneurs to showcase their passions, 805 Startups has opened an important line of communication.
“Essentially it is a project that would serve as a job-creation engine for the economy, as well as addressing work-force development. It would help people get trained in high-level skills and innovation in entrepreneurship,” Livingston said.
He also sees 805 Startups becoming involved with incubators, environments where entrepreneurial minds are free to blossom and create.
“Tied into the incubator accelerator program would be a whole scouting team, networking across the country. They’d be working with different universities, investors, incubators, corporate partners, etc.,” Livingston said. “The idea is to work with them to help identify people and businesses that align with the cultural identity of a city, and then help relocate people that are going to thrive in that environment, and by investing in that person or business, help plant their seeds in that community. It will hopefully develop them into a much larger company that can provide jobs to the community.”
Currently 805 Startups is in the works with almost every major local city to produce events such as start-up showcases, monthly luncheons and job fairs. The next event, an investor/start-up job fair, will be held on Aug. 30 at the Agoura Hills Event Center and will be free to the public (tickets available at the website). The support from both local and state governments seems rock solid. The mayor of Thousand Oaks, Claudia Bill-de la Peña, gave an introductory speech at the start-up demo competition, and recently Livingston and Goren met with U.S. Congresswoman Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, to discuss ideas. These collective concepts are becoming a major part of how the business world operates now and into the future. Because the fate of the future economy may just rest on providing the bright minds of today with the environment to save it.