Bill Gates And Elon Musk Are Worried For Automation - But This Robotics Company Founder Embraces It
Updated: Jan 2, 2018
By: Frederick Daso | Forbes | December 18, 2017
The specter of automation has Bill Gates and Elon Musk worried.
Gates believes the government should tax robots as they tax human workers, and “even slow down the speed” of incorporating robots into the workforce.
“Certainly there will be taxes that relate to automation. Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level. – Bill Gates”
Musk predicts automation will lead to mass unemployment. The government would need to establish a universal income to maintain social and economic stability.
“…I think may be these things do play into each other a little bit, but what to do about mass unemployment. This is going to be a massive social challenge. And I think ultimately we will have to have some kind of universal basic income. I don’t think we’re going to have a choice. – Elon Musk”
Daniel Theobald disagrees.
Daniel Theobald, co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Vecna
Theobald doesn't claim to know what type of social programs would work the best, and is open to things like a universal minimum income. But he rejects the idea of automation induced mass unemployment, characterizing it as highly unlikely.
The co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Vecna, the Cambridge, Mass. technology solutions company focused on education, business government, healthcare, material handling, and other sectors of the economy, believes that robots will be an ultimate boon to humanity.
The company’s motto: “Better Technology, Better World.”
He believes that automation will allow us to take advantage of the “prosperity chain”: Prosperity Creates Jobs, and that Technology Creates Prosperity.
“There is no better way to kill an economy than to cripple its ability to be competitive in world markets," says the CIO.
Theobald grew up in Silicon Valley, the region most commonly known for ‘disrupting’ our banal lives with novel technologies. He spent his childhood digging in dumpsters scattered around the Valley for spare parts. Those obsolete components found new use in Theobald’s robotics and electronics projects. He even built and programmed a homemade Apple II+.
In high school, Theobald wanted to bring others together around a shared love of computing and electronics. He became President of the Independence High School Computer Club, successfully recruiting his peers with a passion for technology and the future.
Yet his passion for engineering was grounded in a strong sense of ethics after meeting Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb. He was only sixteen when he went to the Lawrence Livermore National Lab’s Super Computer Program as a representative of the State of California. While he was there, he had the chance to speak with Teller. Their following discussion left a lasting impact on Theobald.
“My meeting with him was a formative experience for me in that it made me think deeply about the impact engineers and scientists can have on the world, and how we need to take responsibility to ensure what we do makes the world a better place.”
A young Theobald representing California at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab Super Computing Program. Here, he is listening to a lecture from famed physicist Edward Teller.
His enthusiasm for computing and electronics drove him to apply to MIT. He wasn’t sure at first whether he would even go to college until his childhood friend, Tony Costa, mentioned MIT.
“He said it was the best engineering school in the world,” Theobald said, “but he bet I couldn’t get in.” Theobald’s dad, on the other hand, gently encouraged him to apply.
MIT was the only school Theobald applied to.
He got in.
At MIT, he experienced a severe culture shock. To Theobald, the difference between Boston and San Jose was night and day. It took awhile for him to adjust. Being lonely at the Institute didn’t help either. Money was tight, so he could not afford to go home to see his family, let alone call them often.
“My parents even wondered if I was still alive after a semester,” Theobald jokes.
Fortunately, his pursuit of technology staved off the feelings of loneliness and gave him purpose. He had entered MIT with the hopes of founding a robotics company to make the world a better place.
He had even chosen the name of his company years in advance as part of a writing assignment in high school. His then-English teacher had him write a letter to his future self. In Theobald’s letter, he wrote to name the company one specific word.
‘Vecna’. In Czech, the word means “eternal.”
Theobald had been dreaming of a world where robots helped humans do their jobs even better than before. Being at MIT, he was in the right place to pursue his passion for robotics and entrepreneurship. With the encouragement and advising of Rohan Abeyaratne, a widely-respected and highly accomplished professor in MIT’s Mechanical Engineering department, Theobald was able to complete both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at the school, earning a perfect 5.0/5.0 GPA for each degree. At the end of his Bachelor’s, he earned the Henry Ford II Scholar award, which recognizes “the student who achieved the highest academic standing in the School of Engineering and has exceptional potential for leadership in engineering and the world.”
The award also came with $5,000. Theobald cried, for it was a “life-changing amount of money” for him at the time.
His academic prowess would continue to pay dividends. He was fortunate to be a recipient of the be a recipient of a Hertz Fellowship Award and National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship, which supported him financially and funded his research through his Master’s program.
With two degrees from MIT in tow and five grand in the bank, Theobald left MIT much better than he entered it. He went to work in industry right after graduating. His first couple of jobs were programming in Java. He did this for about nine months before realizing that the company he wanted to work for did not exist.
So Theobald created it himself.
He checked his bank account and had roughly five grand left from the academic award he earned at MIT. Still driven by his childhood dream of making the world a better place with robotics by our side, he founded Vecna with that money in 1998.
Theobald wanted Vecna to be driven by the tangible impact it makes by developing products that makes human lives easier and enriched by robotics. Also, he and the partners he worked with aimed to give back to their community.
Nearly twenty years later, Theobald has been at the forefront of the robotics field, from developing products such as Vgo that help students who are missing school due to cancer treatments to have a ‘physical presence’ to the Robotics Lifter series to help move heavy packages from one end of the factory to another. In addition, Vecna employees have completed over 170,000 hours of community service.
It’s a testament to Theobald’s faith in robotics and company culture he’s established at Vecna. His childhood meeting with Teller proved to be formative, as it has shaped his “professional philosophy today and is why Vecna is the way it is.”
Robotics has augmented the productivity of humans, not taken their jobs as Gates and Musk have ominously foretold.
Theobald has a saying when it comes to robots place in our future – the three M’s.
“Anything that is Manufactured, Moves, or needs Maintenance will be done with robotics in the future. It is no longer a question of 'if', the only question is when, and what will we chose to do with the prosperity it creates. I hope we choose to do good.”
Theobald believes we are at a watershed moment, as “computing back in the ‘80s is where we are now with robotics currently.”
He thinks we have a golden opportunity to use automation to our advantage and strengthen the prosperity chain that supports us all.
And like Vecna, if we embrace robots and automation, our society can make this prosperity chain eternal too.