20-Minute Leaders“When a product I create has a direct impact on somebody's life, it gives me great pleasure.”
“When a product I create has a direct impact on somebody's life, it gives me great pleasure.”
Seeing her work have a direct impact on someone is important to Michal Roizman Vaida, vice president of product at Blue White Robotics.
Seeing her work have a direct impact on someone is important to Michal Roizman Vaida, vice president of product at Blue White Robotics. The company offers kits to add on to tractors to turn them into autonomous vehicles for the farm, and she shares that seeing how the product has helped farms overcome time and labor obstacles makes her happy. Vaida, who also co-founded BeeHero, explains that agriculture is a field that is ready for technological breakthroughs, and there is much that can be done to improve farming, which will help everyone by decreasing food scarcity. She spent time in the IDC researching the ethics of human-robot interactions, and she warns that those building tech often don’t think enough about the effects of their creations. Vaida has learned to ask the hard questions and is committed to using technology to improve the world.
You are a co-founder of BeeHero, and today you are a vice president of product at Blue White Robotics. What I think is fascinating is going back to your time at the IDC researching robots and ethics. How did this whole thing come about?
We have at IDC the Milab, and I had the great privilege of being one of the research assistants there. It's just fascinating to realize there is a whole world that researches the field of human-robot interaction. When people think about robots, they think about humanoid robots, things they see at movies. But robots can be anything that is hardware with intelligence. It can be a handle of a door. Understanding that robots are going to be more common in our life made me think that the part that I want to investigate in research is the part of ethics.
Why do you observe that this is a worthwhile conversation to have?
I think that we are developing technology and not always stopping to think how it will affect our life. When you are already in the field of doing this human-robot interaction, you are interacting with this thing and it has some kind of AI. It really gets your head thinking about where this thing can lead us or how far this interaction will go. When you are getting to those thoughts, you need to really start thinking about what your boundaries are or where you want to take this technology.
I just started to read every article that was ever published on human-robotic interaction ethics. I think that we don't put enough thought into the way we build technology, not taking into consideration the effects of where the technology can develop and how it will affect us. When I was really investigating this field, I just realized how we develop the technology without stopping for a second and asking ourselves the hard questions.
You are taking this more now to the agriculture side. Tell me about robots and agriculture.
The thing that I feel passionate about is how we can take technology and use it for good and to empower us. Our mind needs to go to find innovative ways of how technology can empower us.
So in BeeHero and also in Blue White Robotics, we are talking about food scarcity, world population that is growing, scarcity of labor, and it's a huge problem. We understand that there is no labor, there are not more agricultural fields for us to grow food, so we need to find how we are going to make the best of every part that we have. We need to really seize the potential. What we do in Blue White Robotics is that we put this kit that can transform any existing tractor from any manufacturer and transform it to autonomous. Then you can manage a fleet of autonomous robots that just run in the farm. They can be more efficient and you can really see the potential that you want to get from your farm.
This autonomous fleet will obviously be more efficient than a traditional human, right?
Yes. Also the fact that you don't have enough people that want to do this job. It's hard for the farmers to find people that are willing to work.
And a robot can work overnight, 24/7, which is very important. In agriculture, you have an importance of the time of when you do the tasks and the time of day, the season.
What are some of the really interesting questions that you need to deal with in regards to the questions that you were researching back in the IDC?
First of all, autonomy: this is something that can make people get really stressed. It's really important as a product to be able to provide this sense of safety. And also, to make it as easy as possible because at the end, you want to replace something that people are used to doing and to do it as simple as possible. It's a huge challenge.
What do you need to do as an organization to garner trust amongst the stakeholders here? What's been most effective?
It's really important for us to be there at the field with the clients. We are there with them operating the tractors, showing them how we are doing that.
It's more of a presentation. We are there “boots on the ground” in the farms for a period of time to make them see it's a kind of a process. First, we show them a POC, and if they are choosing for us to enter the farm, we are there for a period of time working there operating the tractors, showing them the technology. It's really important also to show the technology, to get them really close to see how the robot is thinking, and to make the interface of the fleet management very user friendly and very similar to other apps you know.
On the first day, the first run of an autonomous vehicle that is changing the behavior of the farmer now, what is their reaction?
First of all, we are trying to be as good as a human driver. Their reaction in the beginning is, first of all, to see the safe side. So people want to see that it stops when it understands that there is some kind of an obstacle in front of it. When we pass this level, they are looking to see if it's driving accurately enough, if it's in the middle, if the implement that is connected to the tractor is doing the job properly.
Sometimes, the clients get inside the tractor to see how it works inside. It's a weird experience in the beginning. You are sitting inside the tractor and everything just moves. It looks like there is a ghost inside the tractor. It's weird in the beginning. Then it's just fascinating to see everything and see seamless work, very efficient.
How far are we from this humanity-wide step function to the point where our farms are completely autonomous and we are able to increase our crop yield universally?
Not so far, I must say, because the autonomous kit, it's just the add-on kit. You don't need to change anything in your farm. The robot suits itself to the environment. We are seeing it already happening. We are seeing it already making the operation more efficient, more reliable, even more safe.
If you are asking me about scale, we have our plan to scale. It's not something I see as a challenge that can't be achieved. We are going from one farm to another, expanding, getting to new environments, learning how the algorithm needs to improve itself, learning how to build a better product in a good agile method one step at a time. But not far.
What do you love most about what you do?
I think that once you get into areas in which you feel that the product or technology that you are creating is doing a direct impact on somebody's life and it's not some abstract story you tell, it gives me great pleasure. It's also to do something that is good for the world. It's really important for me to know that when I go to work and I put all of this effort in something, it should be something I believe in and will help society.
Agriculture is a fascinating world. It's a really a place where you can bring technology, a place that had a minimum technology 20 years ago. There is a lot to do in order to make agriculture better, to help it help us.
Michael Matias, Forbes 30 Under 30, is a Venture Fellow at Innovation Endeavors as well as investment Venture Partner at Secret Chord and J-Ventures. He studies Artificial Intelligence and Human-Computer Interaction at Stanford University, and was an engineer at Hippo Insurance. Matias previously served as an officer in the 8200 unit. 20MinuteLeaders is a tech entrepreneurship interview series featuring one-on-one interviews with fascinating founders, innovators and thought leaders sharing their journeys and experiences.
Contributing editors: Michael Matias, Megan Ryan