Meet Mahalakshmi Radhakrushnun, The Woman Behind Robot Mitra
A 5-ft ‘made in India’ robot, ‘Mitra’, has shaken hands with British royalty, conversed with Indian political leaders and stolen the show at the three-day Global Entrepreneur Summit (GES) in Hyderabad. Mitra has been developed by Bengaluru-based startup, Invento Robotics. SheThePeople.TV spoke with Mahalakshmi Radhakrushnun, COO at Invento Robotics, about Mitra, the future of robots, and women in entrepreneurship and technology.
With Mitra, India marked an entry in the global race to develop a social robot. What led to this?
We initially started as an makerspace to promote hardware hacking and creativity. The initial team of six was made of three men and three women. We wanted to break many stereotypes on building hardware in India — (such as only China can do it, only guys can do it, hardware is too complicated, building hardware is inferior to building software). Eventually, we realised that the best way to break the stereotype is building our own successful hardware startup. We had been building robots in the makerspace and it was the one that attracted most attention in our stall at the Makerfaire in 2016. Thus, our shift to robotics was more organic.
What are the benefits we’re looking at with Mitra?
The robot is to provide contextual customer assistance. Imagine, you are at an airport and you need an assistance – lost boarding pass to finding good dosa, or the way to the metro train. The robots would be able to provide assistance in multiple languages and guide you the right way. In offices, it can do fast check-ins with face recognition. In hospitals, it can provide information related to the surgical procedure you are going to undertake. In malls, it can help you find the right product. People do a lot of search queries in the physical world — five times more than they do on Google. We are providing the contextual search for the physical world.
The robot can converse with people, provide empathy through eyes and hand gestures, do computer vision to understand emotional levels and move around indoors autonomously
It’s believed that this is the perfect time for humanoid robotics to enter into our workplaces. In which fields and industries does the team see greatest potential for Mitra in the next few years?
We see the biggest potential at airports and office parks to start out with. Overall in the long run, we see malls, banks, and restaurants becoming the key customers.
Are humanoids the best solution?
We believe so. Voice is the next big thing and the current devices are not best suited to voice-based communication. Thus, even after many years of Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant, the adoption is minimal. Because, humans use vision, gestures along with voice to communicate. Our humanoid uses its entire body to communicate, just like humans. Thus, we get far more conversation than any comparable device.
While this is an extremely unique concept in the Indian market, it’s also important to have the audience relate with Mitra convincingly. How has Invento Robotics managed to keep the customers/audience engaged?
The engagement comes from the empathy the robots convey. We worked a lot on designing a robot with a friendly appearance that will appeal to a wider audience and not just the geeks. We also have an innovation for doing conversations without using a “trigger word” like “Ok Google” or “Alexa”. This enables much more snappier interactions and when the robot itself moves towards you and starts a conversation, it is hard to ignore it.
How will Mitra enhance customer interaction?
Mitra uses speech to converse with humans in the most natural way they know of. The robot’s height and movement are designed to improve interaction and engagement. It has enterprise data and specific coupons that you might not get anywhere. And, they move around the store helping you with products.
I can give one example. For a customer we are building a feature where a shopper can show a product — say an avocado — and the robot will tell him just by looking at the key information — such as it has high fibre, it is organic and local, and you can make a Mexican salsa with even a recipe. You can do all that without even moving away from the vegetable aisle or fumbling with your phone while carrying the basket in one hand. Imagine, if it could help you with the same when you are shopping in Tokyo next month, while still knowing you and your preferences.
The combination of vision, speech, machine learning, and recommendation algorithms mean you get a much superior experience whether you are shopping, dining, travelling, or banking
How was the experience working with the team in creating something as huge and defining as Mitra?
It is a rollercoaster ride. The team is a fantastically creative one. If they want to have a desk, they will make one at our workshop. Once, they had even built a car. I have grown up in a manufacturing-oriented family and thus it was relatively easier for me with the hardware side.
One of the things that makes our company special is that we have women leaders in every department
Everyone witnessed Prime Minister Modi and Ivanka Trump operate Mitra at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, Hyderabad, last year. What kind of reaction is this humanoid getting among other global personalities?
Mitra has shaken hands with the British Royalty. It was playing with Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje, it has shared stage with VVS Laxman and Arjun Rampal. It has conversed with the Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu and Gujarat respectively. Mitra has even launched the Brand Bengaluru logo with Karnataka’s IT minister. In the past one year, Mitra has interacted with multiple actors, CEOs, and other celebrities.
Coming to you, how did you develop your interest in the field technology?
I grew up in a family that was doing retail and slowly getting into manufacturing. From early days, my father encouraged me and my sister to get into electrical engineering. I graduated with a degree in Instrumentation engineering and most of my work was also related to that.
What would you like to advise aspiring women entrepreneurs?
Entrepreneurship is hard for everyone and for women, it is doubly harder. I’ll share my personal experience here. I had to manage a toddler full-time along with a startup and both had their own tantrums. I would say, stick on for a long time. Nothing big is going to come easy.
As a gender that brings a new life to earth, we have the necessary patience and pain carrying capacity to do big things. We just have to use that confidence
We recently got talking with a scientist and she told us that more than anything, it’s primarily important to encourage young girls at the basic level and make them aware of the fact that there’s nothing they cannot do. As a leader at an innovative workplace, what do you think is the future of jobs for women in technology and what measures do you suggest in encouraging more girls in the field?
Yes, it’s important to encourage young girls and build on their potential. As for our company, we have women leaders heading every department. We expect our women hardware engineers to work as hard as the male engineers. Once you give them responsibility and confidence, things change substantially. We also fight hard against the toxic startup culture that exists in many places. We hire to filter out people who might be smart, but bring in the toxic attitudes and deep stereotypes. Many companies would rather have brilliant geeks and then try to build a shell around when they exhibit such toxic behaviour.
Let’s remember that women have been pioneers in areas like software development. There is no reason to expect any less out of girls
Lastly, what’s the future like for Mitra and more of such inventions?
We want to see Robots as ubiquitous as PCs and smartphones. There are a range of applications they can do, from security to shopping assistance to helping physicians diagnose to keeping company with the elderly. The future, as they say, is bright!