How One USC PhD Candidate Employs Robots To Evaluate Infants

S.C. Stuart
S.C. Stuart is a foreign correspondent (ELLE China, Esquire Latin America), Contributing Writer at Ziff Davis PCMag, and consults as a futurist for Hollywood Studios. Previously, S.C. was the head of digital at Hearst Magazines International while serving as a Non-Executive Director, UK Trade & Investment (US) and Digital Advisor at The Smithsonian.
How One USC PhD Candidate Employs Robots To Evaluate Infants

Inside the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) multiple high definition digital cameras are set up in a fixed-rig around a 22-inch bipedal (humanoid) NAO robot and a similar-sized (human) infant, as part of a study by the Infant Neuromotor Control Lab and the USC Interaction Lab. When the robot makes a specific leg movement, the infant hesitates, and then copies. Then the infant shifts, wriggles and kicks its other leg - which the robot mimics easily, to the infant’s surprise - and delight.

The NAO robot was developed by Aldebaran, now part of the United Robotics Group, and is a sophisticated machine, suitable for healthcare research studies such as this one. The robot has seven touch sensors (head, hands and feet), two ultrasonic sonars which allow the robot to estimate distances to obstacles, and inner technology which allows the robot to move, mimic and perceive its position within an environment. The NAO is a vital part of the global healthcare socially assistive robot market, which is projected to reach $38 billion by 2031.


Lauren Klein, a fifth year PhD student at USC’s Interaction Lab, has been using the NAO in the lab’s on-going research project, which has been running for over five years, in collaboration with Dr. Beth A. Smith’s Infant Neuromotor Control Lab at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. The aim of this research is to “develop a socially assistive, non-contact, infant-robot interaction system to provide contingent positive feedback to increase exploration and expand early movement practice.”

Simply put, it’s often hard to find out if an infant has developmental delays until it’s too late to really help them. Movement is how infants explore the world, and develop healthy brain-body connections. By using a robot to both elicit and mimic movement, researchers can find out much earlier if intervention is required to help the child develop correctly.

By using head-mounted eye tracking on the infants, the research team obtained significant data streams which proved that infants demonstrate what is known as “predictive gaze” (visual fussiness, accompanied by verbalizations) when they learn that robot reward is contingent on their behavior.

To date twenty-six infants, from a range of backgrounds and ethnicities, have participated in the research trial.


Robots and Infants

After graduating from Cornell, Klein took internships at NASA JPL, working alongside Caltech researchers on a machine learning team to support the Deep Space Network and then started looking around for funded research to take her ideas to the next level. An advisor suggested checking out the Interaction Lab at USC, which is how she ended up working on this current project.

“Our team showed that infants were able to learn that their leg movement activated the robot - this is known as a contingent learning task,” said Klein. “Once we had that foundation data in place, we could also prove that infants also grasped that when they changed their leg movements, the robot made its own movement in response.”

Essentially proving that the infant neuromotor skills are in good order, and it knows what’s going on.

USC Interaction Lab

The NAO is just one of many robots used by researchers at the USC Interaction Lab. On the day we visited, there were three iPals (Avatarmind), standing to attention. They're 3-feet tall, weighing 27 pounds and each containing 25 motors and 19 sensors - and someone had amusingly arranged their end effectors (robotic limbs) to portray Mizaru, Kikazaru and Iwazaru (the three wise monkeys of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” fame.) Resting on the floor, at the base of the iPals’ articulated limbs, were a couple of aibo (Sony) robotic dogs, while a QTrobot (LuxAI), an expressive social robot designed for autism research, looked down from the top of a filing cabinet nearby.

The Interaction Lab is entirely focused on robots deployed inside socially assistive research projects, bringing positive effects to disparate communities, with specific challenges, from mental health in adolescents and university-aged students, stroke rehabilitation in seniors, and human-machine interaction towards early detection of dementia.

“Another new project is using machine learning to help individuals with physical disabilities to learn to program and become part of the digital economy,” added Maja Matarić, PhD, Founding director.



Socially Assistive Robot Futures

At its current retail price of nearly $18,000 per unit, the NAO isn’t currently a feasible option for large-scale roll-out. That said, once the research is done, and the code is in place, the work being done can be downshifted into much cheaper robots.

“The ultimate goal of our research is to deploy a code using affordable socially assistive robot units,” Klein confirmed. “To allow in-home interventions that use play to improve healthy development in young children.”

This vision, however, is still some way off. Academic research is meticulous, stretching over many years, through trials which painstakingly ensure results are “reproducible” before they can be used in real-world applications. But using the NAO robot today, in trials like these, is just the beginning.

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🏰 Disney's Epic Investment Stands Out Amidst Gaming Industry Layoffs

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

🔦 Spotlight

In the midst of widespread gaming industry layoffs, a glimmer of positive news emerges as Disney announces a significant move: a $1.5 billion investment in Epic Games. 🏰💰🐭

Image Source: Disney

Disney's $1.5 billion investment in Epic Games, disclosed late Wednesday, signals a strategic alignment aimed at expanding the success of "Fortnite." The deal enhances Epic's growth prospects after financial setbacks, including layoffs, and strengthens the partnership between the two companies. With Disney gaining a larger equity stake in Epic, the collaboration will broaden the integration of beloved Disney franchises like Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, and Avatar into the game, potentially boosting its appeal and longevity. This significant investment underscores Disney's commitment to interactive entertainment and signifies a shift towards games as a primary revenue stream, aligning with the growing trend of digital engagement among younger demographics. Moreover, the potential for crossover sales of physical Disney products within "Fortnite" and the exploration of new content distribution channels are just some of the opportunities arising from this partnership.

For LA tech, the Disney-Epic Games partnership represents a validation of the region's burgeoning tech and gaming ecosystem. The substantial investment in Epic, who maintains a large Los Angeles office with 1,000+ employees (according to LinkedIn), reflects confidence in the LA’s talent pool and innovation potential. Additionally, this partnership between two industry giants fosters an environment for further collaboration, investment, and growth within LA's tech sector. As Disney and Epic Games deepen their ties and explore new avenues for content integration and distribution, it not only elevates the prominence of LA as a tech hub but also stimulates economic growth and job creation in the region. This partnership highlights LA's unique position as a hub where technology and entertainment converge. With its ability to integrate diverse industries, LA is driving innovation and expansion in digital entertainment. 🚀💸🎮

🤝 Venture Deals

LA Companies

  • ProducePay, a financing and marketplace platform for the fresh produce market, raised a $38M Series D led by Syngenta Group Ventures joined by Commonfund, Highgate Private Equity, G2 Venture Partners, Anterra Capital, Astanor Ventures, Endeavor8, Avenue Venture Opportunities, Avenue Sustainable Solutions, and Red Bear Angels. - learn more
  • Blush, an invite-only dating app that drives users to local businesses on dates, raised a $7M Seed Round from individuals like Naval Ravikant. - learn more
  • Mogul, a startup founded last year that provides an overview of an artist's royalty earnings and identifies areas where money is owed but has not yet been collected, raised a $1.9 million seed round from Wonder Ventures, United Talent Agency, AmplifyLA, and Creator Partners. - learn more
  • Avnos, a hybrid direct air capture startup, raised a $36M Series A led by NextEra Energy and joined by Safran Corporate Ventures, Shell Ventures, Envisioning Partners, and Rusheen Capital Management. - learn more
  • AI.fashion, startup whose mission is to help retailers enhance the online shopping experience by providing consumers with virtual try-ons and personalized fashion recommendations, raised a $3.6M Seed Round led by Neo. - learn more
  • Suma Wealth, startup that aims to demystify financial topics and provide culturally relevant content, virtual experiences, and resources to help Latino users navigate financial challenges and opportunities, raised a $2.2M Seed Round . Radicle Impact led, and was joined by Vamos Ventures, OVO fund and the American Heart Association Impact Fund. - learn more
  • 222, a startup that helps users discover their city and meet new people through unique social experiences, raised a $2.5M Seed Round. Investors included 1517 Fund, General Catalyst, Best Nights VC, Scrum Ventures, and Upfront Ventures. - learn more
  • LimaCharlie, a security operations cloud platform, raised a $10.2M Series A led by Sands Capital. - learn more
  • Polycam, an app that uses a smartphone’s sensors to capture 3D scans of objects, raised an $18M Series A co-led by Left Lane Capital and Adjacent, and joined by Adobe Ventures and individuals like Chad Hurley and Shaun Maguire. -learn more.

LA Venture Funds

Actively Raising

  • ReelCall, Inc., an entertainment technology company focused on powerful apps and platforms that help build and maintain the professional network of connections vital to career growth, is raising a $850K Pre-Seed Round. - learn more
  • CZero, a startup building software to decarbonize logistics for logistics businesses and goods business through a vetted marketplace and optimization software. - learn more
  • Couri, a technology startup addressing last-mile delivery issues, is raising a $450K Pre-Seed Round at a $2.2M post money valuation. - learn more
  • Sweetie, a marketplace to help people plan date nights, is raising a $1.5M Pre Seed Round. - learn more
  • StartupStarter, an investment platform that provides real-time data and analytics on startups, is raising an $850K Angel Round. - learn more

If you’re a founder raising money in Los Angeles, give us a shout, and we’d love to include you in the newsletter!

Venture Waves, Climate Tech Wins, and Silicon Beach's Ongoing Evolution

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Anduril Seeks $1.5B in VC Funds

Defense company Anduril Industries Inc., based in Costa Mesa and founded by Palmer Luckey, is seeking to raise $1.5 billion in fresh funds to boost its valuation to $12.5 billion or more, according to sources quoted by The Information. This fundraising effort, if successful, would mark one of the largest venture capital rounds of the year.

Image Source: Anduril

Anduril recently secured a contract to develop and test small unmanned fighter jet prototypes under the Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program, beating out major defense companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. Alongside General Atomics, Anduril will design, manufacture, and test these aircraft, with a final multibillion-dollar production decision expected in fiscal year 2026. This program aims to deliver at least 1,000 combat aircraft to fly in concert with manned platforms and is part of the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance initiative. Central to Anduril’s success in this contract is the Fury autonomous air vehicle, acquired through the purchase of Blue Force Technologies. This victory underscores Anduril's rapid advancement in the defense sector, aligning with Luckey's vision of building faster and more cost-effective defense assets. - learn more

Los Angeles Ranks Number 1 in Emerging Climate Tech Hub

The 2024 Emerging Climate Tech Hubs Report by Revolution highlights Los Angeles as a burgeoning center for climate tech innovation. LA's growth in this sector is driven by its diverse talent pool, strong research institutions, and a culture of environmental consciousness. The city's unique mix of legacy industries, such as entertainment and aerospace, alongside emerging tech companies, positions it as a pivotal player in the climate tech landscape. This shift reflects a broader trend of decentralized climate tech funding across the U.S., reducing the historical dominance of California's traditional hubs. - learn more

Silicon Beach: Looking Back, Moving Forward

Assessing the overall health of the startup market is challenging, especially as venture capital funding has decreased by an average of 61% from 2021 to 2023 across the top VC markets in the US. Markets with robust ecosystems in AI, SaaS, Biotech, Healthtech, and Fintech appear to be weathering the downturn better than those focused on Consumer and Gaming industries, areas where Los Angeles traditionally excels.

Percent Change In VC Funding By Region

CB Insights

LA Times paints a rather bleak outlook on the Los Angeles tech scene noting venture capital funding in Greater Los Angeles plummeted 73% from 2021 to 2022. Silicon Beach, once a vibrant tech corridor, currently faces high vacancy rates and lacks late-stage financiers, especially in the AI sector. However, there are positive signs, including growth in aerospace startups and increased venture capital investment in early 2024, suggesting a potential rebound for LA's tech ecosystem.

While LA may not be exceeding expectations during this period, its tech ecosystem warrants a nuanced evaluation, given the broader market dynamics and its strong performance in specific sectors. Reach out to us with your thoughts.

🚀 SpaceX gears up for another stellar year, active raises, and more

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Happy Friday Los Angeles! You made it through the first week of 2024!

🔦 Spotlight

Elon Musk may be a divisive (albeit entertaining) figure, but the continued success of SpaceX is pivotal for the aerospace industry in Los Angeles and more broadly around the world.

Image Source: SpaceX webcast

What happened with SpaceX in 2023?

  • Elon Musk challenged Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg to a cage fight.
  • SpaceX launched 96 successful missions with its Falcon series of rockets, a 57% increase over its previous annual record.
  • SpaceX conducted two test flights of the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, Starship.
  • Roughly two-thirds of SpaceX's launches in 2023 were devoted to building out Starlink, the company's satellite-internet megaconstellation.
  • Isaacson’s Elon Musk biography was published in September including everything from Musk’s tumultuous relationship with his father to his work ethic and “demon mode”.

Moving forward what can we expect from SpaceX and its controversial founder? Continued innovation pushing the aerospace industry to new limits? Yes. More drama? Without a doubt.

Here is some of what is to come in 2024:

🤝 Venture Deals

Just Announced

Check back next week!

LA Exits

  • CG Oncology, an Irvine, CA-based developer of immunotherapies for bladder cancer, filed for a $100M IPO. It plans to list on the Nasdaq (CGON) with Morgan Stanley as left lead underwriter, and has raised around $317m in VC funding. - learn more
  • McNally Capital agreed to sell Advanced Micro Instruments, a Costa Mesa, CA-based maker of gas analyzers and sensing technologies, to Enpro (NYSE: NPO). - learn more

Actively Raising

  • ReelCall, Inc., an entertainment technology company focused on powerful apps and platforms that help build and maintain the professional network of connections vital to career growth, is raising a $850K Pre-Seed Round. - learn more
  • CZero, a hard-tech startup that is developing a technology for decarbonizing natural gas, is raising a $1.5M Seed Round. - learn more
  • Couri, a technology startup addressing last-mile delivery issues, is raising a $450K Pre-Seed Round at a $2.2M post money valuation. - learn more
  • Sweetie, a marketplace to help people plan date nights, is raising a $250K Angel Round. - learn more
  • StartupStarter, an investment platform that provides real-time data and analytics on startups, is raising an $850K Angel Round. - learn more

If you’re a founder raising money in Los Angeles, give us a shout, and we’d love to include you in the newsletter!

📅 LA Tech Calendar

Sunday, January 7th

Wednesday, January 10th

  • Startup Cafe: Networking with a Kick - Entrepreneurs, Startups, and Tech Enthusiasts join together to meet and connect with like-minded people, industry professionals and investors, while enjoying a nice cup of coffee in Venice at The KINN. This week’s interactive discussion about AI’s evolution in entertainment will feature Dr. Sam Khoze and Rachel Joy Victor.
  • Venice Tech Happy Hour- Join Startup Coil and FoundrHaus Wednesday evening and enjoy the sunset from the rooftop, grab a bite overlooking Abbot Kinney, and mingle with other tech enthusiasts and entrepreneurs by the bar on the patio.

Have an awesome event coming up? Reach out to be featured on next week’s Newsletter!

📙 What We’re Reading

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