Picture a grocery store in which humans and robots work together in perfect harmony — moving stock around warehouses, stacking shelves, and cleaning floors. If that all sounds like a hackneyed sci-fi cliché, think again. Step forward Eugene Izhikevich.
The 52-year-old Russian is cofounder and CEO of Brain Corp, a San Diego-based software firm which converts manual machines into autonomous robots for use in public spaces.
To date, Brain Corp has raised $125 million in funding, including a $114 million Series C round in 2017, led by Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank.
Speaking to Business Insider, Izhikevich says his ultimate vision is “robots everywhere, taking care of us, and making our lives better” — a vision which Izhikevich says Son shares.
“I have this vision of robots taking care of us, and it turns out he had the same vision before me. So when I met him, it was like meeting my biggest soulmate,” he says.
And a certain US retailer shares the vision. In April, Brain Corp revealed it would be rolling out 1,500 floor-cleaning robots in Walmart stores throughout the US, in addition to the 360 already in use. The robots are powered by BrainOS, Brain Corp’s artificial intelligence operating system.
‘Our tech can turn anything with wheels into a self-driving, fully autonomous robot’
In the same month, Brain Corp also announced AutoDelivery, an autonomous robot powered by BrainOS, which can transport cargo in commercial and retail settings, as well as warehouses and factories. It is set for release in 2020 and is another step in Brain Corp’s mission to turn everyday machines into smart, self-driving robots.
Hailing from a modest background in Moscow, Izhikevich came to the US in 1993, obtaining a PhD in math at Michigan State University. He had earlier spent three years serving in the Russian navy.
“I wasn’t born with a PhD,” he says. “My parents didn’t have college degrees – I was the first one to go to college. I am no stranger to manual work.”
After finishing his education, Izhikevich worked as a computational neuroscientist for more than a decade. Along with tech entrepreneur Dr Allen Gruber, he set up Brain Corp in 2009, driven by his dream of creating artificial brains for robots.
Fundamentally, Izhikevich explains, the point of Brain Corp’s floor-cleaning robots is to save time, giving human workers more time to interact with customers.
“Our tech can turn anything that has wheels into a self-driving, fully autonomous robot,” he says. “This is what we’re focusing on. With our technology, the machines [using it] operate autonomously, so that human cleaners can do other stuff, such as corner cleaning, dusting, and so on.
‘We see Walmart as a visionary’
“The time saving is significant for any retail business with huge square footage. What we’ve learned is that our customers like this technology because they want to save on expenses, but they quickly realise that once they reallocate [employees] from cleaning the floor to other mobile-level stuff, there’s a huge upside for retailers.
“In terms of the commercial cleaning tech, the stores [that use it] look cleaner; they are cleaner; they’re more hygienic. Our customers quickly realise there are other benefits to using our tech which significantly outweigh the operational savings.”
Although Walmart isn’t the only customer Brain Corp serves, it is quite possibly the most ambitious. For nearly two decades, Walmart has been battling tech behemoth Amazon for supremacy in the retail sector, and Walmart’s CEO, Doug McMillon, reportedly refers to Walmart as a “technology company.”
“Walmart is very interesting,” Izhikevich says, “because it wants to embrace technology, AI, and automation to be more competitive and to provide better service and cheaper prices to its customers.
“So in some sense, [Walmart] is a perfect fit for us, because not only does Walmart want to use our BrainOS for commercial cleaning equipment; it also embraces BrainOS to put into other types of robots that could be deployed in its stores. We see Walmart as a visionary.”
Izhikevich says Brain Corp is not killing jobs
Of course, many people wonder how far automation will impact the retail sector given the rise of cashier-less stores such as Amazon Go. The Go stores have faced criticism in recent months, but even they still employ people to interact with customers. What is his response to people who view Brain Corp as a jobs threat?
“We don’t replace people,” he says. “Robots with our technology augment people. They make people’s work more productive, more efficient… Customer service will not disappear. We still need the human touch; we still need human faces to talk to. I don’t see stores having no people.”
He continues: “We talk to actual users [of our tech] – not just customers, but janitors who use it. One janitor we spoke to loved the robot so much, he put a sticker on it and called it Gemma. We asked him if he was worried about his job, and he said: ‘Are you kidding me? I’m the robot guy. My job is more secure now than before.’
While Izhikevich is not ruling out taking Brain Corp public, he says the company’s present focus is applying its software to other sectors – and, ultimately, becoming one of biggest robotic firms in the world.
“We’re not excluding any exit strategy,” he says. “However, today, we’re focusing on expanding our software to other types of robots and capturing the market.”
“You can find robots with our technology in malls, airports, shopping centres, university campuses, and other retailers,” Izhikevich continues. “Walmart is our most recent customer, but not the only one.”
“Our tech would work equally well in factories. It works in indoor spaces and outdoor spaces such as parking lots, walkways and pedestrian areas.
“Think of the impact a big California startup can make on the US economy. We have the technology to transform the entire midwest of the US into the robotics hub of the world.”