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Interview: Francisco Paz Rodríguez (CEO, TheCorpora)

Qbo, the open source personal robot developed by TheCorpora, is now available to the general public.  Early-adopters can enjoy a 20% discount if they order soon.  Despite being busy with the launch of his dream project, Francisco Paz Rodríguez (CEO, TheCorpora) took some time out to give us the inside scoop on Qbo’s development.

Plastic Pals: Tell us what got you interested in robotics and why you wanted to provide a platform like Qbo to the robotics community.

Francisco Paz Rodríguez: Like many others belonging to the generation of films like Star Wars and Bladerunner, my real passion for robots began back in the ’80s when my parents gave me a book that talked about technology and robots who would live with us in the year 2000. We passed the year 2000 but none of those things ever came true. In the meantime the series of events happening in my personal life allowed me to undertake this project of “attempting” to develop a personal, social, and home support robot. Despite the limited resources I had, I decided to continue with its development.

Those old publications certainly jumped the shark.  The authors underestimated the difficulty of building a functional robot!  Were you working in robotics before you formed TheCorpora?

16 years ago I formed a company which focused on mathematical processes aimed at digital forensics and behaviorial localization patterns. This gave me much-needed knowledge and the understanding of the algorithms for robotics. Also I have done some work related to industrial mechanics.

Now it has been six years of work and you are bringing Qbo to market. Can you give us an idea of the milestones you crossed throughout that time?

In the beginning, the whole idea started as a personal project. I didn’t follow predefined stages or a project management methodology. We simply tried to maximize our limited resources such as staff to focus on each sub-component of the project and as soon as we completed the component we moved to the next section.

From humble beginnings, how many people now work at TheCorpora? From what I can tell it is a fairly small, dedicated team.  Can you divulge the development costs?

During the first 4 years of development, our team was my brother, three friends (who are experts in industrial design and mechanical engineering), and myself. During the two years our team has increased to 6 engineers and the cost of the research and development of the robot eventually surpassed one and half million Euros.

Despite such a small team, you’ve built a robot that can compete with similar examples from Japan or South Korea.  To some they may look fairly similar, so explain what sets Qbo apart.

We firmly believe that for a robot to be universally accepted, it must be as friendly as possible. We spent almost the first two and half years of the project finalizing the design. We followed the traditional delicate Italian way of drawing to design Qbo.

The main differences between Qbo and the others is its price, design, quality of materials, and most importantly its open source nature. Apart from that Qbo contains the standard mechanical components that can be easily found in any Robotics shop in the world.

Judging by the photos, it has top-notch build quality.  I think the robotics community appreciates the open source model, and it’s definitely more convenient to use standardized parts.  Have any universities (or other institutions) expressed interest in adopting Qbo as a platform for research?

Throughout the project many people, institutions, universities, and R & D centers have notified us of their interest in Qbo. Presently we are in the process of delivering them. Qbo will help them to develop applications to suit their ongoing research. Also we are participating with other companies and research groups in developing projects for the European union.

How do you feel about the news and press reaction to Qbo?

We are well aware that the success of our project is heavily dependent on blogs like yours. We are grateful to everyone who has helped spread awareness of Qbo and we hope they will continue to do so. Now it’s the time for the truth and the public will tell us whether we meet their expectations or not.

Already there are dozens of Qbo apps available via the community site, OpenQbo (link). These give us some idea of what users can do with Qbo.  Any favorite applications so far?

All of them have something special and they’ve been developed with lots of love. If I had to pick one, I guess, I would choose one of our current developments which is to do with assisting people with disabilities. This project uses a brain-computer interface that is worn on the head. We are in the very early stages of the project, but we believe that soon enough we will be able to show what it can do. My interest is to assist all kinds of people through robotic technology.

Given all of the challenges associated with A.I., how do you begin to tackle such a huge problem?

In order for AI to exist, it’s necessary to have knowledge. This involves issues such as large volumes of information that must be classified, despite constant changes. Therefore, it’s necessary to produce devices which crowd-source contributions to a general database of knowledge. But so far AI attempts have failed or they are still in laboratories. It is true that there are many very effective AI programs in very specific domains but still most aren’t in general use.

Qbo has been available to pre-order for the past couple of months.  When will the first customers receive their robot?

We are on schedule to deliver our first shipments in early or mid-September.

Qbo looks up to his maker, Francisco

Besides Qbo, what are some of your favorite robots?

In fiction of course, there’s R2D2, C3PO, and Sonny from I, Robot (although the latter was just a digital model). In terms of real robots, I was most impressed by the PR-2 by Willow Garage. I got to see one with my own eyes at their facility in Silicon Valley.

If we can ask you to speculate a little, what do you see for robotics in the next 10 years?

I don’t think that in 10 years we will have anthropomorphic robots in our homes. In my personal opinion, I don’t think we will ever see them in our homes. Although I believe that we will have Smart Homes full of little devices that are capable of learning about human preferences and which can assist in general house hold chores.

I agree that smart home technology will be much more common than humanoids in the home.  However, with small entertainment robots like Aldebaran’s NAO, it could be argued we already have humanoids in the home!  Who knows what kinds of developments may arise as our technology evolves?  Given the current state of the art, it seems it will be a long wait for humanoids – but with Qbo, the personal robot revolution is already underway.   

We’d like to take the opportunity to thank Francisco for answering our questions, and we wish him, TheCorpora, and Qbo the best!  Thanks for reading!

You can learn more about Qbo and TheCorpora at their official website here, and at their blog.  You can also join the Qbo community at OpenQbo.

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