Robots are coming pic before resize - An interview with Rich Walker: The robots are coming

Could a better understanding of robotics help the UK wine trade solve its problems? It’s a mind-boggling concept. We have a chat with one of our Symposium @LIWF speakers

Automated assistants in wine shops, perhaps, which identify you by your retina and sense your mood by the pheromones you’re emitting? Perhaps a device that allows you to remove plastic stoppers without risking a rupture?

As it happens, a leading roboticist will be attending the London International Wine Fair, but not to talk about such comic-book ideas. Rich Walker, director of Shadow Robot Company, is one of a group of mavericks, free-thinkers and outsiders taking part in a seminar hosted by Wine Intelligence.

His company is different to most robot manufacturers. “Most people in high-tech either have backers with deep pockets or come from a large organisation,” Walker points out. “We got together because we’re passionate about building robots.”

Robots are coming

The R&D department isn’t based in a gleaming science park in Japan or California. It’s behind a shop front in Islington. Yet the team has developed a world-beating product, in the form of the Dexterous Hand, which “provides unique capabilities for problems that require the closest approximation of the human hand currently possible”, according to the marketing. In the UK, the company also gained publicity for the bionic man it built for a Channel 4 show, now on display in the Science Museum.

“We can afford for things to go wrong, but we have to spend our money carefully,” Walker says. “We can’t make big expensive mistakes.” But he relishes the flexibility that the company structure provides. You might expect a business of that size to be buying robotics from the Japanese, but in fact it’s the other way around.

The Dexterous Hand comes in useful in scenarios which present hazards for human beings: bomb disposal, the nuclear energy industry, and branches of microbiology. Is that white powder sugar, or anthrax? But there might be other applications that haven’t been properly explored yet. For example, could the device find a market among the elderly?

Walker does not profess to know anything about the wine trade. He’s more of a beer drinker at home. But he believes his experiences may resonate with other entrepreneurial minds at the ExCeL show. “Most companies are quite focused on a specific area, but for us, at any time a random member of our team might have a time sheet with 10 different projects on it. We try to do as many things as possible, which from a classic business point of view is a really bad idea. But in our business, if we had to focus on any one of those things at an early stage, we’d effectively be making a bet. “The approach we’ve taken we would never do in a big corporation.”

“Meet the Mavericks” is taking place at the London International Wine Fair on May 22 from 9:30am-2:00pm.
Tickets are strictly limited and are available from Stefanie Forster (Stefanie@wineintelligence.com or 02073781277). For details, please visit www.wineintelligence.com/symposium-liwf