14:57 | 02.02.24 | Articles | exclusive 8689

Paolo Pirjanian about NASA, Moxie and robot production in Armenia

Embodied Inc. founded by American-Armenian Paolo Pirjanian is a leader in Artificial Intelligence (AI). An advanced robot created by Embodied has improved the quality of life of children and families.

The Moxie robot has been awarded a top prize in the AI category at the prestigious CES 2024 event in Las Vegas. As an innovative creation, Moxie is shaping the future of interactive and educational technology for children.

Pirjanian was born in Iran and moved to Denmark and later to the United States. From the time he was young, he had a keen interest in computers and coding. His impressive career includes a position at NASA JPL as well as leadership roles at iRobot®, and Evolution Robotics®.

Passion for technology and work at NASA

Since early childhood, I have been inspired by movies like Star Wars. I wanted to learn how robots worked and how a human could create a robot. When I got my first computer, Pixar released the Luxo JR animated film which fueled my interest in how computer-generated things could make people feel. I started learning coding on my own, during my high school years I would spend summers in my room, locking myself in and learning programming and trying to code myself.

photo © Mediamax

I decided to go to a university to learn computer science. It was the first time I saw a robot, it was a big and ugly machine but it was also pretty interesting. So I got a doctorate in robotics.

I applied to NASA and got a job moving from Denmark to the United States. At NASA I was working on sending robots to Mars. The aim of this project was to use robots to build a settlement on Mars where people would live in the future.

First startup and iRobot CTO

I loved my job at NASA, but in 2001, Bill Gross, a successful entrepreneur and founder of many large companies, contacted me and invited me to join him as CTO to start a new robotics company called Evolution Robotics.

I was interested in the offer. At the time, I knew almost nothing about entrepreneurship and wanted to see how a new company was created and to communicate with investors. You could say it was my first startup experience, which was quite challenging.

photo © Mediamax

I left NASA and developed a technology that became one of the leading technologies in the world. It helped a robot draw a map of a house and work as an autonomous driving technology.

Robotics was just developing then. iRobot, the most famous of such companies, which made robot vacuums, was interested in our technology and bought our company. I also became the CTO of iRobot, and we built more than 20 million robots.

Moxie is a childhood dream

After three years at iRobot, I decided to return to my childhood dream. Inspired by the Pixar animated film, I wanted to create a robot that would help people emotionally, educate them, and relieve feelings of loneliness. Loneliness is a big problem in a country like the United States. In Armenia, it is not that significant.

According to statistics, one in every 5 children in the U.S. suffers from autism or neurodevelopmental disorder. Intensive professional work and assistance from therapists and psychotherapists are needed to ensure the further development of the child.

There is a problem with teaching children to socialize. However, therapy is expensive and there is a shortage of specialists. There is one therapist for over 350 children. An average of 20 hours of therapy is required per week.

The waiting list is long, maybe over 1 year, which can be fatal for a child at this stage. In addition, one hour of therapy is very expensive, for example, in California, it varies between $400 and $500. Many parents cannot afford it.

This is where technology can help. The goal was to create a robot that could take care of the child, provide psychological support like a human, understand the child, perceive the child's emotions, etc. It was very difficult and it took us about 8 years to develop and bring the robot to the final result.

This year we have a few tens of thousands of users in the US market alone. Next year we plan to enter the global market and increase their number to hundreds of thousands.

photo © Mediamax

Why do children love Moxie?

Compared to other robots, the number one advantage is the technology. Moxie is fully autonomous and can communicate independently. Many companies resort to manipulating and using robots to remotely control and communicate with users. It is not very fair and can't have a particularly long lifespan.

We were the first to create technology that can communicate with people independently. Secondly, Moxie's design and image are very important. We have the best Pixar and Disney experts working with us to create the character carefully. Moxie expresses a lot of emotions, has a lot of facial expressions, and knows how to establish contact with a child.

Embodied team and office in Armenia

There are 60 people in our team, about 20 of them are from Armenia. They have been with us since I founded the company. Robotics is a complex field that unites specialists from different areas. It is a combination of technology, electronics, software, artificial intelligence, and design. We also work with pediatricians to get professional help and the right targeted content.

Such complex programs don't always succeed. You need to ensure smooth communication and collaboration of these teams. The culture of the team is important here. Complex tasks can be solved based on the cooperation between different teams.

We have many talented engineers in Armenia, who are engaged in artificial intelligence and theoretical computer science. We can say that 90% of the software is developed by Armenian specialists. We also aim to produce robots here. This is a strategic decision to position our country as a robotics leader. In the future, it will become an important industry and will change the world. Robotics can develop our country economically. We bring our experience here and are willing to cooperate with various government agencies.

First steps for robotics development in Armenia, following Korea’s lead

Many different and simple processes need to be performed. I have seen such an example in South Korea. In 2007, the government of that country decided that they should compete with Japan but they were lagging far behind in this field. They coordinated efforts between the government, university research, and private companies and could develop them quickly. I was acting as a consultant then. The South Korean government invested one billion dollars, joined by other major global investors, and the investment increased tenfold to 10 billion dollars. It was strategically important for them, and now South Korea is one of the world leaders in this field.

First, the government should be involved. Investments are necessary to be competitive globally. We have talent and experience, we need to establish cooperation. And here different ministries should work together, invest in universities, and attract private companies as well. We need to be oriented on the global market. We can produce in Armenia, but we can sell on the world market.

photo © Mediamax

Armenia offers an attractive environment for global investors

We have a lot of talented specialists, their services are cheaper than in the U.S. China was able to become the industrial center of the world also thanks to a cheap labor force. It became a strategic advantage for them. They realized that they could use the cheap labor force for their purposes. Armenia has many talented specialists in artificial intelligence, who are paid 4-5 times more in the United States. If we take advantage of this opportunity, we will be able to attract investment.

It’s underway, I see that many international companies are investing here. We are one of the examples. We are a small team but we are investing around $1.5 million a year. Imagine how big our investment will be once our team here grows and expands to a thousand people. It will reach around $50-100 million.

Embodied's educational programs and investment

We are working with ACA, our junior specialists enroll in their educational programs. For example, we have a startup specialist from Artsakh, we train him to learn our programs. We support him to become a full member of the team.

There are angel investors from the Diaspora who are interested in investing in Armenia and Armenian teams. I am involved in various investment groups. Armenian startups present their ideas, and we make investments. In addition to financial assistance, we also support them with our knowledge and experience, and advise on different stages of building a startup.

Will robots rule over humans? Myths and fears

Whenever a new technology is created, we are always afraid of what will happen and how it will impact people's lives. Will it control people or not? What about data safety issues? There are always myths about every new technology, especially artificial intelligence and robotics. We still have a long way to go to get to that point. These are early days for robots and technology has to evolve a lot to equal humans.

photo © Mediamax

On the positive side, robots perform a very important task, for example, work in factories is fully automated. Robots will gradually replace mechanical jobs and new jobs will be created. As in the past, new jobs and professions have been emerging with new technologies.

Many new jobs in artificial intelligence and robotics will also be created, and the global economy will grow even more. People will earn more money and their quality of life will improve. It is crucial to guide kids in the right direction from a young age and educate them about emerging professions. For example, there might be no need for drivers in 10 years, as the world will move to autonomous vehicles. We must be competitive in the labor market, and we will have a better life.

Nune Grigoryan
Photos: Emin Aristakesyan