Robots are coming — for real this time, Eliot Horowitz says

The cofounder and former CTO of MongoDB  is building a new company, Viam, focused on making robotics software more accessible. He cautions engineers and entrepreneurs alike: The robotics boom is here, so get comfortable with the tech.

Ten or 20 years ago, when you thought about what life would be like in the 2020s, you likely expected more robots.

Maybe not lifelike synthetic humans, but considering the Roomba robot vacuum was released 21 years ago in 2002, you might not have expected that the most common household robot in 2023 — often the only one in the home — would be the robot vacuum, still disc-shaped but a bit more affordable.

Why so little advancement in everyday robots? Well, for one thing, we’re looking in the wrong place if we’re expecting the big robotics innovations to be household items. But the short answer is because programming robotics software has traditionally been difficult and expensive, making it out of range for most startup inventors.

The revolution hasn’t come — yet.

“It feels like every year someone gets on stage and says ‘robots are coming, they’re coming, they’re going to do great things any day now,’ and it hasn’t happened yet,” said Eliot Horowitz, founder of Viam, a venture-backed robotics software startup that helps businesses design and build robots from the idea stage. (He’s speaking this week at Pittsburgh’s XchangeInnovation Week.)

Before Viam, Horowitz was a founder and CTO of the publicly traded software company MongoDB — yes, the one behind the developer data platform — which he left in 2020 after more than a decade.

While figuring out what to do next as the pandemic wore on, Horowitz started thinking about two high-impact industries: robotics and climate tech. He could see that the former could positively impact the latter in doing things that are difficult for humans to do — say, plant a ton of trees or clean oceans. Robotics could help with those issues and plenty of others, he realized, on both a micro and macro scale.

Making robotics software more accessible

One of the main things holding society back in terms of everyday robots getting those hard jobs done is software. While robotics hardware has improved dramatically since the early 2000s, the software lags behind.

“I came to the conclusion pretty quickly that software tooling in the robotics space was not good enough,” Horowitz said. “And that if you think about software in a larger sense in the last 25 years, everything has fundamentally changed.”

The problem was, a lot of the advances that have heavily impacted mobile applications, ecommerce and finance have not had the same impact on the robotics space. And that, per Horowitz, had to change.

“That’s the problem we set out to solve,” he said. “How do we make a software platform for robotics that will make robotics startups more plentiful and successful?”

Should you be thinking robotics?

This time, when people say the robots are coming, it could be a real inflection point.

What we’ll start seeing soon is “not necessarily going to be a general purpose robot in your living room,” he said, but there will be a shift “in terms of agriculture, in terms of construction, in terms of food tech. Robots painting, fixing potholes, cleaning oceans. I think what’s coming down the pipeline in the next two or three years is enormous.”

With a real rise of the robots on the horizon, should jobseekers and aspiring entrepreneurs be looking at developing skills in robotics?

“I’m a big believer in attaching yourself to long-term trends, rather than short-term trends,” Horowitz said. “So if you want to start a company right now, focus on things that are not going to go away in the next 10 years. In boom VC markets, people are interested in things that you can flip and make a bunch of money in the next two years. In down markets, people are more interested in bigger ideas that take longer. Same with getting a job — don’t think about skills that are super ‘at the moment,’ think about core skills that are always going to be in high demand.”

When it comes to robotics, it’s something entrepreneurs should be thinking about, even if they think the tech is beyond their capabilities.

“A lot of engineers are intimidated by robotics,” Horowitz said. “For my entire career, I’ve always been interested in how software and hardware work together, but I was always too intimidated by robotics, it seemed too complicated. I think that era is over. We’re making it accessible — not accessible as a toy version, but you can do real things and build real businesses.”