Technology

For Silicon Valley Exec, His Wish Is Robots' Command


Dave Evans, chief futurist at Cisco, built his first robot when he was 12. Three decades later, he's still tinkering

When Dave Evans was 12 years old, he fashioned a broom handle into a crude but functional mechanical hand, complete with moving digits and tendons. Today, at 43, he's still tinkering with robots, albeit with a markedly bigger budget.

Evans works as chief futurist in network equipment maker Cisco Systems' (CSCO) consulting group in San Jose, where he helps customers adopt new technology. In his spare time, he's built "Halie," a virtual assistant that helps around the office by pulling files, finding weather reports, and adjusting the thermostat. Evans talks to Halie, who appears as a young woman on a special screen in his office, uttering his commands in everyday language.

"I'm obsessed with this intersection between humans and machines," says Evans, who estimates he's spent tens of thousands of dollars of his own money building robots over the past 30 years. While he's a Cisco employee, Evans' robots are his own creations and, for now, he hasn't developed a robot for Cisco or its customers.

In addition to Halie, Evans also builds physical robots in his home that check e-mail, control lights, and watch for intruders. The hobby is so time-consuming that Evans equates it with a second full-time job. "You do need friends and family that are tolerant," he says.

"Surging Interest in Robotics"

Evans is part of an inveterate tradition of Silicon Valley tinkerers whose fixation with computers and electronics often exceeds the boundaries of the workday. As many as 80 people attend monthly meetings of the Valley's HomeBrew Robotics Club, which dates from 1982 (though Evans isn't a member). About 10 attendees work for robotics companies; the rest are hobbyists, says club president Wayne Gramlich.

"There's a huge, surging interest in robotics," says Gramlich. In the late '90s, perhaps a dozen members attended the meetings, he says. Experts say there's been a groundswell of robotics hobbyists over the past decade, propelled in part by programmable robotic toys such as Lego's Mindstorms. Robotics camps and competitions including the annual RoboCup, in which robots compete in soccer matches and faux rescue missions, have also fueled amateur interest in the field.

Personal and service robots—not those that work in heavy industry—are expected to fuel most of the industry's growth in the future. The worldwide personal robotics market, which encompasses household machines and toys, is expected to reach $5.26 billion by 2015, from $1.16 billion in 2009, according to ABI Research. Manufacturers are expected to sell 6.8 million toy, hobby, and educational robots by the end of 2012, up from 900,000 at the end of 2004, according to the International Federation of Robotics trade group.

Evans grew up watching the '70s TV show The Six Million Dollar Man, about a pilot outfitted with machine parts. When he was a child, he imagined becoming a surgeon and working with artificial limbs controlled by patients' thoughts. "We're now seeing lots of advances in prosthetics and brain-machine interfaces," he says. "I was decades ahead of my time."

Interface Software

Evans spends much of his personal time building robots and says he's intrigued by multipurpose robots that might be able to walk the dog, communicate with people, and vacuum the floor.

Recently he's been writing code for software he created called "Brain" that runs on a Windows PC to power virtual assistants like Halie, or on physical robots. "The notion is to create machine intelligence" that makes robots easier to interact with, he says. The software can perform a range of functions including monitoring his home for intruders and sending Evans a Twitter message or e-mail complete with photos if the software detects something unusual.

The Brain software helps power Halie, who bears a polite and earnest demeanor and realistic animation. Evans is enthusiastic about the prospects for robots to perform more tasks in the workplace. He says robots could replace most manual labor within 25 years.

Evans' previous creations have already changed the way people operate. He created San Francisco's Connected Bus, an effort between Cisco and the city to create a special bus, featuring informational touchscreens and wireless Internet access for passengers, for a yearlong trial, which ended last year.

Evans says a confluence of technology trends is enabling advances in robotics that were once the realm of science fiction. The same principle drives him now as it did in his early years, he says. "I wanted to augment humans for the greater good."

King is a writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in San Francisco.

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