Interview with Dr Simon Haddadin, CEO of robotics manufacturer Franka Emika
Many innovative technologies like artificial intelligence or machine learning end up on a screen, as Dr Simon Haddadin explains. But he and his team at Franka Emika, develop robots that get technology off the drawing board and into the thick of things in the real world. In Haddadin’s words, this not only has an “impact” in a technical sense, but also in social, societal and economic terms.
Despite qualifying as a medical practitioner, he found this new field extremely exciting. Therefore he hung up his stethoscope in 2016 to found Franka Emika together with his brother Sami. They were hoping that the company’s robots would make a difference in the world. Since starting production in 2018, Franka Emika has sold around 3,000 robots for all kinds of applications.
Although Sami Haddadin is the expert when it comes to algorithms and artificial intelligence, his brother Simon was able to bring something else to the table with his medical expertise. Because developing robots at Franka Emika is really about understanding human capabilities and transferring them to technology.
Simon Haddadin demonstrated one particularly impressive example of their robots’ capabilities. The SR-NOCS (Swab Robot for Naso- and Oropharyngeal COVID-19 Screening) conducts high-precision, fully autonomous nose and throat swabs on humans to test for COVID-19. The system has already shown off its capabilities in practical settings and been ordered by surgeries. Yet it took one or two sleepless nights and a healthy dose of passion to get this far, as Dr Haddadin emphasises.
Is the SR-NOCS a typical example of your company’s products?
Dr Simon Haddadin: No, it actually isn’t. We view our robotics solution as a hardware and software platform, similar to Apple with its iPhone and App Store. In other words, other parties can take our platform and launch their own completely new solutions based on our system. We were own our customers in a sense when it came to the SR-NOCS – we not only supplied the platform, but also a system solution for a specific application.
Apart from this platform concept, what is so special about your robots?
S.H.: We founded the company with the vision of opening robotics up to anyone and everyone, which is why we gave our robots new abilities. First and foremost among these is a sense of touch, which was realised by equipping each robot with over 100 sensors and lending it a sense of mechanical flexibility rather than rigidity. It can contract and relax muscles the same way that a human can. This enables our robots to work at close quarters with humans without any barriers or other safety guards.
Finally, our robots are as easy to operate as a smartphone. And they also come at just the fraction of the cost of previous models destined for industrial applications.
With your background in medicine, how did you end up managing a robotics company?
S.H.: My brother and I founded the company together. I actually used to be the one with an affinity for technology and would build and program computers at home. My brother, on the other hand, wanted to be a marine biologist. However, neither of us gave enough thought to our respective futures. In the end, it was our mother who enrolled us on our courses. Electrical and computer engineering for my brother, and medicine for me.
In other words, the exact opposite of your interests…
S.H.: That’s true.
My brother went on to develop an algorithm that gave robots a sense of touch, but nobody believed it would work. I told him back then that you have to back everything up with statistics in medicine. That was around ten years ago at Christmas. Instead of eating dinner together on Christmas Day, we went to the lab at the German Aerospace Center, where he was working at the time, and conducted crash tests. We wanted to establish where the boundary was between danger and safety for humans. This also gave rise to my thesis in the field of biomechanics.
At the time, we both saw how it was possible to conduct a lot of research without actually setting foot in the real world. That was the motivation for us to found our own company.
What is it that fascinates you about robotics?
S.H.: The impact that I have at Franka Emika is entirely different to being just a drop in the ocean as a doctor. In medicine, you learn a great deal about what people are made of. But only a little about how they actually work. This is different in advanced robotics as we understand it. For me, the most exciting thing is that you have to acquire an understanding of human abilities and then put them into a machine. And, of course, it’s really not hard to get excited about all the possibilities that this opens up.
Ultimately, many other cutting-edge technologies like machine learning or artificial intelligence end up on a screen. However, the most important human trait is the ability to interact with the real world, even in total chaos: a person has no idea what is heading their way, yet they can still get their bearings and interact with their surroundings. For me, this intervention in the real world is what makes robotics so exciting. Our robots should help people to put their abilities to good use even more simply and effectively.
You’ve mentioned “impact” – what exactly do you mean by that?
S.H.: This can essentially be divided into two points. Firstly, I am fortunate enough to have an extremely ambitious and talented team here. This team enables us to bring a project like SR-NOCS to fruition within a very tight turnaround time. Innovation is our most valuable asset, and we give our colleagues a very long leash. In this way, they can actually put their ideas into practice. This is what makes our innovations and technological breakthroughs possible in the first place.
The second point concerns real-world applications: our systems are primarily used in the “3C” industry: computers, communication devices and consumer electronics. Yet the year before last saw the closure of the last computer factory in Europe. Although we want to bring about a digital revolution in Europe, we can’t manufacture a single computer here… This is a consequence of the different standards that apply in countries half the world away: after seeing conditions in factories there, you have to admit that they come pretty close to modern-day slavery. This is the only way our smartphones can be as cheap as they are.
Therefore, one “impact” is the fact that we can banish working conditions like this with our robots.
The other impact is that we want to help Europe achieve economic and technological independence again. Nowadays, we are merely consumers of information technology and have ceased to be suppliers. Our vision is to make manufacturing in such fields economically viable in Europe once more. For example, our own production facilities are located in the Allgäu region of Germany, where our robots are manufactured by other robots for the most part. This allows us to manufacture economically right on our doorstep.
Another aim is to make mechatronic systems like autonomous driving or even autonomous flying possible in the long term – we still boast a lot of expertise in these fields in Europe. If at all possible, we want to ensure that these industries don’t go the way of the IT sector, with production for such technologies migrating away from Europe.
We try to do “our bit” to prevent this.
But your motto is “robotics for everyone” – so not just for factories?
S.H.: That’s correct, although we need industry to achieve economies of scale. You first need a market in which you can sell a certain number of units in order to bring prices down further. Although we’ve already made a quantum leap in terms of the cost of robots, they are still too expensive for private use. We therefore need to increase the scale further to reduce costs. In doing so, we can reach a cost range that would also be acceptable for household appliances. This is what the goal must be.
It’s important that robots are not perceived as toys, but as home assistants. Of course, that’s still a few years off, but we are already laying a lot of foundations in development. This not only involves our stationary robots. We are also building service robots already; essentially mobile robotic assistants. Our aim is for people to use robots for assistance at home during the “third age” and “fourth age” of their lives, whether that be for loading the dishwasher, preparing meals or dispensing pills. Robots can also assume an important role as a means of communicating.
In the future, people will be able to communicate with each other haptically using robots, as opposed to just by telephone or videoconferencing. The third area of application is medical assistance: in other words, robots might remind someone to take their pills, perform simple tests like taking a temperature or measuring blood pressure and, if necessary, call for an ambulance.
When do you think that such systems will be widely available?
S.H.: In certain applications, they already are. I estimate that it will be five to ten years before this type of thing is widely available.
I think that industrial applications are absolutely essential, although of course I hope that robots will be used much more in everyday situations at some point. For this to be a reality, however, a few things still need to happen in terms of the technology. Appropriate regulations also need to be amended, such as those concerning how people deal with these types of “learning” systems in their day-to-day lives.
So which aspects of the technology need to be refined?
S.H.: For one thing, there is still some work to be done on how machines communicate among themselves. We don’t think that today’s Internet is suitable for this. It’s too centralised – we really need a new type of network, ideally a decentralised one. There is also still a need for development in terms of real-time applications. For machines, “real time” actually means 1,000 signals per second – a figure more than a thousand times higher than the definition of the same term in an IT or Internet context. Many systems are simply not designed for this. In addition, hardware production needs to keep being scaled up in order for the components to get even cheaper.
Robotics is just one of many trending technologies at the moment, however. Which of the “disruptive” technologies like IoT, AI or edge computing will change our society the most?
S.H.: It’s not easy for me to deliver an impartial verdict here – that goes without saying. The great thing about robotics is that it transcends many kinds of technology. It’s actually about taking all of the technologies you just mentioned and merging them. In doing so, you can bring many of these on-trend technologies into the real world.
You have technology on the one hand. But you also need people who have a certain passion for technology. Yet you might get the impression that young people today tend to eschew new technologies. As a young company, what is your own experience of this?
S.H.: Young people today are – thankfully – preoccupied with extremely relevant topics like climate change. That much is a given. However, at the end of the day, I really do think that technology can help us in many ways to solve the major problems that our society faces.
That’s why we want to show young people what kind of doors technology can open. In 2017, we were awarded the Deutscher Zukunftspreis, which came with an endowment of EUR 250,000. With that prize money, we established a foundation that aims to introduce children and young people to technology as early as possible.
We are also a patron of the Munich round of the “Jugend forscht” youth science competition. In all of these activities, we see that there are still plenty of young people who are interested in technology and who also see the kind of difference it can make.
How important is passion when it comes to developing and using new technologies? Is passion absolutely essential, or might it even be a hindrance under certain circumstances?
S.H.: It’s probably a mixture of the two… Passion makes you keep plugging away in the face of all adversity. If you do new things, you will inevitably face a lot of opposition. This can take the form of competitors, who clearly have no desire for new kids on the block to appear. Then there are regulatory matters – in many senses, the world just isn’t ready for new things.
Naturally, the development of the technology itself is sometimes also difficult and drawn-out. Because all too often, this means long nights and short days when you don’t see your family much. Without a certain passion, it is impossible for someone to defy circumstances like these in the longer term.
„Passion ensures that you carry on despite all the setbacks.“
Dr Simon Haddadin, CEO and Co-founder of Franka Emika
On the other hand, you sometimes need keep a cool head and not get too hung up on things. After all, after a certain point, you simply can’t sink your teeth into absolutely everything. You eventually need to maintain a certain distance to actually make some money. Were it not for passion, the towel might have been thrown in a long time ago.
SR-NOCS – a medical product with a light touch?
Get more informations about the company Franka Emika: www.franka.de