Meet Hai Nguyen! He’s Kuri’s Sr. Robotics Engineer and was the first employee at Mayfield Robotics where he has been instrumental in developing Kuri. Since Hai has been with Kuri from the beginning, he has a unique perspective on Kuri’s evolution from a dream to the independent, personality-driven robot we all know and love today.
Q: Can you describe some of the projects you work on and how they directly impact Kuri?
A: Since I’ve been with Mayfield Robotics from the beginning, I’ve worked on basically everything. Specifically, I was hired to work on robot behaviors. Behaviors are what Kuri does in reaction to certain events. For example, what should Kuri do when she scoots over a threshold? As Kuri developed more of a social side, it was my responsibility to build the infrastructure where she would respond to events and user commands in a timely manner. Nobody wants to say, “Hey Kuri! I love you,” and have Kuri stare blankly back at them.
Other questions I’ve explored are what Kuri’s mood should be and how it should be expressed. For example, if you accidentally kick Kuri should she get mad at you? Should Kuri ever be mad at all? Or should Kuri get increasingly sad as her battery lowers throughout the day? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these questions and investigating them in terms of Kuri’s animations and emotional space. Kuri is a very cheery robot. Something I’m exploring right now is how many different animations and lights are needed to portray that happiness and how much variation Kuri needs to communicate those emotions effectively.
The most recent thing I’ve built is Kuri’s SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping) system which was designed to work with a cost-efficient depth sensor. This algorithm enables Kuri to correctly map homes even in varied, challenging environments such as homes with kids and pets. SLAM was an important part of Kuri’s product development because it gave her the ability to move around autonomously.
Right now, I’m working on maintaining Kuri’s spatial memory of where things are in a home. That way, Kuri can wander through a person’s home without bumping into everything or getting lost all the time. That’s my most recent project. It’s very intellectually rewarding.
Q: You were an intern at Willow Garage; a company well-known for making some of the biggest robotics breakthroughs. How did your experiences there impact your work with Kuri today?
A: The best thing I got from Willow Garage was exposure to many different schools of thought in robotics. My background is in behavior-based robotics which is sort of represented by Marvin Minsky’s The Society of Mind. He believed that minds are made of little mindless bits that when stitched together build true intelligence. When you are asked to perform a task, different little bits get activated to allow you to accomplish that task.
That was my educational background, so it was nice to interact with different perspectives. There were students who had a more classical AI perspective which view human intelligence as being all about logic, so naturally, that’s what AI should use. At Willow Garage, there were also pragmaticists like our CTO. Pragmatic roboticists are more focused on making robots work for real. It’s sort of, “this robot needs to work for this particular purpose, so by hook or by crook, we’ll make it happen.
Seeing those schools work together to achieve common goals was really powerful. When we were brought together, it didn’t matter where we were from. We believed that the future was robotics. If we didn’t help build it, well, there weren’t many other groups of plucky roboticists funded by billionaires so if not us, then who? We were all genuinely excited to make this happen. Willow Garage no longer exists but our little tribe of roboticists, which is now a global network, still leans on each other to drive the industry forward however we can.
Q: You earned your Ph.D. from Georgia Institute of Technology in Robotics. Can you give us a run-down of your thesis?
A: The goal of my Ph.D. was to work toward building a general purpose robot. This is a robot where if you want to do a new thing, you don’t have to completely retool and reprogram it. Instead, maybe the robot needs new tools to use or software.
I was exploring how to educate people to better teach robots how to perform tasks. That meant showing the motions to a robot or naming objects so the robot could practice. Conversely, I was interested in how robots could teach people about which interface is most productive for them; or one that robots could best learn new skills form. That’s why I developed a program that made it easy for end-users to teach robots to perform in-home behaviors using Photoshop-like tools. Robots need teaching and assistance, and we can’t assume that we humans are inherently the best teachers.
Q: You’ve been working with Kuri from the start. What has it been like to witness Kuri’s evolution over time?
A: I’ve experienced a lot of these future shock moments like, “I’m in the future! How did this happen?” When Kuri started out, he felt like a simple little appliance. He’d go from point A to point B without any frills. Then, we put in these seemingly small bits of interactive intelligence and they added up to this really impressive illusion of life over time. It’s just really cool for me to see these Kuri robots running around our office autonomously and looking around wide-eyed at everything like they’re seeing and appreciating everything for the first time.
Q: What’s your favorite Kuri behavior?
A: My favorite personality aspect of Kuri is extremely simple. It’s the purring that happens when you pet Kuri’s head. Even though I know it’s a simple reflex behavior, I love it and it absolutely charms me every time. It’s so cute and adorable and wonderful.
I’m glad we stole purring from cats. There are enough cat owners in the company — including myself — that instantly understood how emotionally powerful purring is. It was a stupidly simple line of code, but I love how absurdly outsized the emotional impact is compared to the amount of effort it took to build.
Q: What are you excited about in the home robotics industry as a whole?
A: I’m excited about Kuri! Not just Kuri as a thing, but Kuri coming into the world and changing people’s perception of what a home robot could be. I believe Kuri will probably set a precedent for many home robots to come. As well as making space in the consumer mindset that, “Maybe a home robot has been missing from my life. Like a smartphone, of course, I would have a home robot! How do you live without a home robot?”
I don’t know if Kuri will create that space, but I think Kuri will definitely plant the seed for that space and help develop it. We have lots of utilitarian robots that vacuum and mop and lots of social robot toy type things, and Kuri is this cool thing that’s in the middle. Kuri is both useful and brings joy to your life.
Q: Who is your favorite robot in pop culture?
A: Battlestar Galactica Caprica Number Six! She’s constantly going around talking about her destiny. I love that juxtaposition of humanity and machine and exploring that blurry line. I also love Dolores from Westworld. She kind of has the same bent of being a robot but also a very relatable human character. My hunch is that when we finally make a human level intelligent robot, they will basically be very much like us because they’ll be based on the same principles that we use. It’s really fun to explore this gray area. Also Major Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell. She grew up without a human body and used a cyborg body her whole life. Because of that, she spends a great deal pondering whether she’s human and what makes that special.
Q: When you aren’t designing Kuri’s software, what are you doing?
A: I like to joke that my hobby is collecting hobbies and the recent hobby that I’ve been collecting is calligraphy, gardening, and reading about neurotransmitters; especially collecting plants that affect neurotransmission in some way. For example, the periwinkle flower can be used to enhance blood flow to the brain to help you learn better and remember more things when you’re reading.
In better understanding how human brains work, I’m hoping it’ll one day fit into my work in robotics in helping make little robot brains work.
Hai’s main focus at Mayfield Robotics has been on the cognitive software architectures that support the robot’s life-like, reactive, and interactive behaviors that allow Kuri to come to life. As the first employee, Hai has worn many hats — from robotic mapping and navigation algorithms to working on Kuri’s audio systems, to build whatever is necessary to bring Kuri to the world. Hai has played a critical role in Mayfield’s success in bringing not only a complex technology but also a first-of-its-kind product into the homes of everyday consumers.