The Sad Story of Softbank’s Aldebaran Robotics and its Emotionally Intelligent Robot

The Sad Story of Softbank’s Aldebaran Robotics and its Emotionally Intelligent Robot
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atelier 02 - Crédit François Glevarec ©

The following article contains information obtained with the authorization by current and former employees of Aldebaran Robotics, who wished to remain anonymous due to the nature of their employment contract and its non-disparagement clause; however, all sources were vetted thoroughly). 

It’s been a good year to be working in robotics & artificial intelligence. While technology leaders like Elon Musk & Stephen Hawkings may not be so bullish on the pace at which we’re advancing in AI, the opportunity to bring our science fiction dreams to life – iRobot, Terminator, Bicentennial Man, need I say more? – seems to be inevitable, and close.

In France, no company has better embodied the nation’s desire & opportunity to become a market leader than Aldebaran Robotics. Acquired by Softbank Group in 2013 for $100 Million, the company’s line of programmable, voice-, speech- & facial- recognizing small-scale humanoid robots have dazzled in recent years. Videos of the company’s flagship model, Nao, dancing to Daft Punk or driving its own car propelled it to fame, and the announcement earlier this year that Softbank & Aldebaran would release a larger, closer-to-real-life model, Pepper, seemed to signal that the company was on its way to ushering in a revolution. Pepper is currently available in retail stores for Softbank, and Nestlé has announced Pepper will help sell its coffee capsules in Japan starting next year, as well as in Softbank’s recently acquired US Telecom Sprint’s US stores.

However, behind what has been hailed as one of the most provocative ventures in the world of robotics, continuous murmurs of worry and despair, coupled with rumors about the company’s ailing status have stacked up and threatened the future of Aldebaran and the robots it has spent the last 10 years building.

Internal Turnover

The first sign came from within, namely that, following the public announcement that Softbank had acquired Aldebaran (there were rumors of the deal in 2012, when the company acquired 75-80% of Aldebaran), turnover of early employees showed signs that things were changing.

Current and recently departed employees inside the company have told Rude Baguette that, since the acquisition, Softbank has appropriated all software development inside of Softbank, meaning that much of the software-side of the Aldebaran team has left, including Software Release Director Chris Kilner (with the company since 2007) & Director of Software Engineering Cedric Gestes (with the company since 2008).

In addition, Aldebaran has gone through 3 CTO’s this year alone. Alec Lafourcade-Jumembo left in February, after having been CTO since 2009, due to what unnamed employees close to the executive team called disappointment with Pepper’s development status given the empending launch date (June 2014). Aldebaran recruited Julien Simon from Criteo, who lasted just 6 months. The current CTO, Nino Sapina, was formerly Head of Studio.

JULIETTE_CURIOSITY_ON

Employees made it pretty clear that there was a disagreement between parent company Softbank and French subsidiary Aldebaran. Some point to Softbank’s culture differences (though the company manages 700+ subsidiaries), while many point the blame at Aldebaran’s executive team (namely, CEO & Founder Bruno Maisonnier). Respected in his field, Maisonnier has been criticized as having his heads in the clouds with respect to Human-Computer Interfaces (HCI), focusing more on the possibility of humans becoming friends with robots than on the practical applications of humanoid robots.

“I’ve never seen a company so big with such little organization.”

“I’ve never seen a company so big with such little organization,” one member of the Aldebaran executive team told us (they requested to remain anonymous, given the nature of their non-disparagement clause). Maisonnier has his hands in almost every part of the company, and split decisions can erase weeks of R&D from 15+ person teams – the kind of decisions that a small lab can afford to make, but that a commercial subsidiary can’t.

This cultural difference, sources tell us, grew to a point where, in 2014, the tone shifted in the relationship between Softbank & Aldebaran – email exchanges between the Softbank employees in charge of managing the Aldebaran joint-project & Aldebaran’s leads became heated – especially if you consider the typically polite nature of Japanese businessmen.

Up until the release of Pepper, Softbank still believed in Aldebaran’s ability to become “the global leader in robotics,” a source from Aldebaran’s executive team tells us; however, Aldebaran had been losing money on R&D since day one, with their flagship product Nao only available for schools & labs, and it was only a matter of time before projects hit the chopping block.

The first Pepper demo was done in 2012, when Softbank purchased Aldebaran – one source told us that Softbank’s acquisition of Aldebaran sparked Google to play catchup, acquiring the likes of Boston Dynamics in 2013. With the influx of acquisition money, Aldebaran hired too quickly, according to our sources, shooting up to 130 people, with Julien Simon – being the first real software CTO – arriving this year.

“If we were paranoid, we’d say that FoxConn stole the hardware, Softbank stole the software, and Aldebaran was sucked dry.” – Aldebaran anonymous executive

JULIETTE_GESTURE_ON-001

From inside Aldebaran, employees began whispering about conspiracies to drain Aldebaran of its resources, pointing to the June launch of Pepper in Japan, which featured, in addition to Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son  & Aldebaran CEO Bruno Maisonnier, Foxconn Technology Group chairman Terry Gou, which some felt was a hint that Softbank was leaking hardware development plans to Foxconn, in order to take its own subsidiary out of the development cycle (remember: the software had already been insourced to Softbank).

Next came the Budget Cuts

Beyond a hiring freeze (see this post from CTO Julien Simon in March, filled with new positions, and the company’s currently empty Job Board), the internal layoffs have been big: 25% of the team was cut in July.

The big cuts came down from Softbank with respect to, well, anything other than Pepper. Not many were irked when Aldebaran announced they’d discontinue development of their first ever robot, Rabbit; however, many will be upset to learn that Nao will soon be getting the same treatment, according to inside sources. Softbank never intended to keep Nao around – it was a necessary cost, during the development of Pepper; however, now that Pepper is out (well, sort of), it’s time for Nao to say goodbye.

Aldebaran still does great demo’s – in fact, its engineers say that the company is especially good at programming Pepper and other robots to do demo tasks; however, Pepper, today, still only performs a fraction of the functionalities it would need in order to become a standalone, commercially viable product. Likely, we’re told, Pepper will only ever be used within Softbank stores and a hand full of stores with which Softbank is friendly (like Nespresso in Japan).

It’s easy to look at this story as a case of company mismanagement, or an acquisition gone wrong, and write it off as such; however, it’s clearly more complex. On the one hand, you have a company developing cutting edge technology – the likes of which have not been seen anywhere else in the world – which has the potential to dethrone Google as the master of your home, and Apple as the next big App Store (imagine an app store where you could buy “Do the Dishes” or “Iron my Shirt”). On the other, you have a French company which spent money recklessly, was unable to convert R&D and academic ambitions into a commercially viable product, and a parent company which bought more than it bargained for, mostly within the executive team.

Softbank is writing off its losses – with investments in Alibaba and Yahoo! Japan, the company can well afford it – and France’s star robotics company is being sucked dry. We asked several employees if they though tAldebaran could make a turnaround. The answers ranged from “No” to “only with a major change in (Aldebaran) management.”

21 Responses

  1. Avatar
    Catherine SIMON

    It is so easy to blame the entrepreneur running the company when you’ve been loosing your job due to a re-organization or for whatever reason in a company that you loved working for because of the thrill of the project of that same company. It is all the more easy when you get the opportunity to do so anonymously. I admire the resilience of Bruno Maisonnier and his energetic entrepreneurial spirit. These anonymous detractors should try and build their company, drive it to the size and worldwide brand, Bruno Maisonnier achieved with Aldebaran and see how is the real life of an entrepreneur and how easy it is to be just the moaning employee of such a thrilling adventure. So, to the anonymous people behing this article, build your own company and then, let’s talk. Catherine SIMON : Innorobo/ Innoecho

    • Avatar
      Scott

      Very Well said Catherine.

    • Avatar
      Alex Jubien (@AlexJubien)

      I 100% agree with you Catherine about entrepreneurship, however I wouldn’t consider what’s said by former guys as “to be ignored”. At least, not as long as they’re not proven wrong by the company meeting its expectations.
      I’m not saying that it’s good that they complain and say things anonymously. I just think it’s a symptom (with other symptoms) of a more profound and important “illness”.
      Paraphrasing Liam, I’d define this illness as is: “Aldebaran did not succeed (yet) to transform his dreams into something real / a tangible real world success”.
      IMHO, it’s in fact way to early to expect any real world success – but since it’s what was sold, it’s now expected (particularly by stakeholders / Softbank). Aldebaran is very very early in the curve of innovation’s adoption (well explained in french by Oussama Amar from TheFamily here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HP99FI6APZU&t=24m35s), but they are expected to already transform the world!

      If I may compare to what I lived at Deezer:
      – It’s hard to imagine the level of pressure you have when working in such “under the light” and “changing the world” startups. This implies a huge level of commitment. Which also makes your expectations big as an employee, and your disappointment even bigger when they’re not met.
      – It’s quite easy to write (no offense Liam – you saved yourself with the “it’s clearly more complex.” part) on such issues, journalists like that because people read that a lot. You can find loads of articles on Deezer not earning money, not succeeding to sell its premium offer, Spotify killing Deezer, dispute between founders, etc… It’s all now from the past.
      – I was the right guy to build the mobile stuff there. Was I the right guy to work on following steps of the strategy – eg deployments with operators? Hell no!
      Maybe the same kind of things happened to the former employees you mention, Catherine. Still, we don’t have the real reasons – in the case of Aldebaran, any departure of an employee that has skills in the domain and fits to the culture is a huge loss.

      I also admire what Bruno (and a few others – I guess you know who I have in mind) have built.
      One could argue that those were the right guys until now, and that they aren’t anymore the right persons for the next steps. Common in startups.
      But in this very particular case, I think Aldebaran has no future without those guys leading the vision (I’m not saying “participating” to the vision, I’m saying “leading”).
      Though, if at one time a sort of monarchy is necessary to grow a startup, when the company gets big it then has to change in something more democratic (eg, delegate responsibility), that allows to really unleash the talents from past employes AND from newly hires.
      There’s only one thing that the leaders have to always keep for themselves: the vision (+ ensuring everybody sticks to it).

      Last point: as you Catherine, I deeply hope Aldebaran will succeed!
      And so does Liam. And so do the former employees that complained anonymously.

    • Avatar
      Steve Richards

      Great points everyone. I think Alex is correct about AR having a great start up with its staff but now needs new leadership to finish the job. Where as once Nao was the leader in the press on humanoid robots coming to the home, it is quickly being swallowed up by the press Pepper is getting. This coupled with the fact that Softbank has no interest in furthering Nao leaves AR in a difficult situation. In addition to good leadership AR needs a consumer release fast and a lot of press. Now is not the time for leadership with a smile and hearty handshake, but a tough General with leadership, stern qualities and vision. It is truly sink or swim time now.

    • Avatar
      Catherine SIMON

      Well, thank you Alex and Steve. Being closely linked to the robotics community for more than 6 years now, I believe Aldebaran has not yet reached the stage where it needs to reinforce its management board to “reason” the energy, vision, drive of Bruno Maisonnier. Bruno might do mistakes, who doesn’t, but he is still the true leader and visionnaire of Aldebaran. It is too early to “organize” the business and market strategy with management by figures and business plan. It is still the time for courage and energy while the ecosystem is shaping up, technologies are advancing. I was asked if I could name two or three potential future leading worldwide companies in France. I saw the emergence of the videogame market (I am an old cow) and the rise of Ubisoft and Infogrames. In robotics, I yet can only see Aldebaran with the potential to reach worldwide leadership in the mid to long term. I hope time will prove me right for Aldebaran and hopefully others from France and Europe….in the service robotics market.

    • Avatar
      Steve Richards

      Concur on Bruno Catherine. He is the one who had the vision and did get the ball rolling. I guess the big question is, if you were in management at AR, is there anything you would be doing or implementing to help AR be the leader you think it can still be? I do know there is a lack of trust in management there, I don’t know if the people are referring to Bruno, or other management staff but that needs to be fixed. I am sure they are well aware of this article and posts and fresh ideas might be of help.

    • Avatar
      Alex Jubien (@AlexJubien)

      Catherine,

      About “reasonning the energy” or “organize the business”: I never said that. You say “it is too early” => agreed, and maybe it is just too early for Aldebaran to have 700 employees!!!
      They’re still in the phase of finding “product / market fit”, not in the phase for growth!

      Again, all this is a quite common issue in startups, mainly due to hypergrowth – some solutions here: http://www.theupgroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Hiring-for-Hypergrowth.pdf
      Points 5, 6 and 7 may apply to Aldebaran, though they already tried part of them AFAIK.
      So again, it’s about letting people enough place / trust / delegated responsibilities / air to breathe, so that they can unleash their talents.
      They have energy too! And leaders main role is to catalyze it into realizing the vision – not “reason” it to take your words.

      I also agree with you. If we have a startup today in France that can change the world tomorrow, it’s Aldebaran.

    • Avatar
      L'Inuit

      Split & arbitrary decisions from the boss erasing weeks of R&D team work have been reported by multiple sources inside the compagny (fired or not…). This is very poor management, that cannot be wiped out by an argumentation of the form “do it yourself and we’ll talk afterwards”. You can have a judgment on the quality of a film without being a director, the same is true for company management.

    • Avatar
      Catherine SIMON

      Sometimes you live through decisions that you believe to be arbitrary just because you lack of the information that led to these decisions. Then comes the will to understand, this can be done in a more subtle and private way than by speaking out loud and anonymously your lack of understanding. Sometimes, you are right, it was an arbitrary decision…and here comes the trust and faith in the overall vision of the entrepreneur.

  2. Avatar
    Mike

    Happy to root for the under-dog in this case. Home/School robotics is such a new industry and a market with new and established entrants. There is no normal, yet. These are growing pains and technicalities.

    Kids are SO engaged with NAO. People are drawn, for reasons they can’t always easily put into words, to the robot — from a business perspective that really is the entire story.

  3. Avatar
    Mike Duzor

    I too am behind Aldebaran, however a lack of response from anyone there so far to these claims is cause for alarm. I would hate to see Nao be discontinued after nearly 10 years of work.

  4. Avatar
    Paul

    With all the press like CNN and other major news sources Aldebaran has got this is literally breaking news. For shame on both companies. I doubt Softbank jumped in blindly without research, they had a plan. Bruno should have managed better and not sold out the bulk of France’s pride and joy. Well now its all out for all to see, will Softbank chop Nao’s head off or will they standby something that has brought so much charm and hope to people, especially the autistic. Hopefully this story spreads across the board and changes are made.

  5. Avatar
    Anonymous

    Wow, the Aldebaran lobbyists are out in force… Are they getting paid for this or have they simply been brainwashed over the years? Either way, they can’t hide the fact that this company is in terrible shape due to irresponsible and whimsical management. No amount of meaningless PR or spin will change this sorry fact.

    Yes, it’s hard to start, fund and run a company. Yes, the Aldebaran vision is mind-blowing. No, being an innovative entrepreneur can’t excuse everything, like running your company into the ground and displaying abusive behavior towards your own employees.

    Being a founder and being a CEO are two different things, most people can’t handle both roles equally well, no matter how bright and hard-working they are. The key thing is being humble enough to acknowledge this simple fact, focusing on what you do best, handing the rest over to professional managers who will help you build a solid company and above all, respect the people who work hard to fulfill your vision.

    Humility. Professionalism. Respect. Would Aldebaran employees, past and current, list these as company values? It seems not. Take the red pill, fanboys!

    • Avatar
      Alex Jubien (@AlexJubien)

      Hey Anonymous,
      It’s a shame you have to stay anonymous, I guess you have your reasons.

      Seems you misread, since quite nobody denies the issues:
      – Paul: “Bruno should have managed better”
      – Mike Duzor: “…is cause for alarm”
      – L’Inuit: “This is very poor management”
      – Steve Richards: “It is truly sink or swim time now”

      Me:
      – “…sort of monarchy is necessary to grow a startup … then has to change in something more democratic (eg, delegate responsibility)”
      – “it’s about letting people enough place / trust / delegated responsibilities / air to breathe, so that they can unleash their talents.”

      Do you really consider those as fanboys words?

      I 100% agree with you on company values – if you don’t build the values in a company, you don’t really build it. But “Humility. Professionalism. Respect.” are not company values, those are personal values.
      “Trust” is a company value, probably the most important one, and it means:
      – Leaders trust employees (hence respect their decisions and work) – it all starts here
      – Employees trust leaders (hence don’t doubt about them / don’t come to the idea that the issue is with the leaders)
      – Employees trust employees
      – The outside world (investors, journalists, Liam from RudeBaguette and commenters of this article, …) trust the company
      I think it’s the one that lack most in that case, don’t you think?

      The anti-value of Trust in a company? “Fear” – like fear that would make someone stay anonymous when describing real problems.

  6. Avatar
    NicolasJ
    • Avatar
      Phil

      so in your world, Nicolas, sales PR and product support are the same thing?

      Have you stopped to think how much it costs to run a 500 people enterprise, one that is run with inefficient and chaotic management? and how much sales are actually required to support a product like NAO?

      Personally, I wouldn’t count on Aldebaran being alive (in it’s current form anyway) 6 months from now.

  7. Avatar
    Anonymous Aldebarian

    Soon, much change with the departure of french CEO Bruno Maisonier which gives way to a Japanese CEO.

    • Avatar
      Paul

      Since you spelled Aldebaran wrong its not likely you are connected with the company and this information is false.

    • Avatar
      Coco

      Looks like he was right…

    • Avatar
      L'Inuit

      Yep, Paul & the Fanboys should consider the possibility that the rest of the information to be read here is true, even if they dislike it.

    • Avatar
      Paul

      You guys sure take joy in seeing a mans vision and dream fail. Bruno was totally responsible for the birth of Nao. Its sad, I take no joy in seeing such a great vision and man take a fall.

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