Robotics pioneer Yoky Matsuoka on the human touch in her new personal assistant venture Yohana

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Yohana founder Yoki Matsuoka speaks at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle. (Geekwire Photos/Dan DeLong)

Yoki Matsuoka has served as head of innovation at Google and chief technology officer at Nest, and won a prestigious MacArthur “talent” award in 2007, while a professor at the University of Washington, directing the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering and the Neurobotics Laboratory Was getting it done.

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But as she was starting to build her new venture, a personal assistant service called john Launched in September, its ideas didn’t immediately turn toward robots or artificial intelligence.

Instead, the new service relies front and center on human assistants, who can help with tasks like taking care of haircuts and snacks for kids’ soccer matches.

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Matsuoka said she wants to help people Now, but later in the future.

“So when I saw it that way, there had to be human in the equation,” Matsuoka said Tuesday at the GeekWire summit in Seattle. It is only behind the scenes that Yohana has focused heavily on developing technical tools and data repositories to support human assistants.

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“I’m not trying to belittle humans,” she said. “I’m really trying to enhance the experience with technology.”

Johanna’s career didn’t actually start in science but on the tennis court. As a teenager growing up in Japan, she was on her way to pursue a career as a professional tennis player, but was sidelined due to a series of injuries. “Luckily I loved math and science,” she said, “and that inspired me to build a robot to play tennis for myself.”

He never produced that perfect tennis partner. But through graduate school at MIT he focused on robotics, pulling in majors in neuroscience. “I learned to machine shop, I learned everything from scratch, I learned AI – and I built a humanoid robot with arms and hands,” she said. Later as an academic at Carnegie Mellon University and UW in Pittsburgh, he focused on artificial intelligence, robotics, and assistive technologies.

The MacArthur Award, she said, was a turning point for her. The night after her mother-in-law’s death, with an 8-day-old baby in her arms, she received a call from the MacArthur Foundation. When she picked up the phone, the Foundation asked, “Do you have anything delicate on your hand?” And he said, “I really am.” They called him half an hour later with news of the $500,000 prize.

“I’m a girl who grew up in Japan, a little late to technology, and I’ve always felt a little insecure about myself,” she said. “But this award really allowed me to say, that some people like me are fine. So I can lean in a little more, maybe I can say a little more, maybe I can make more things, and I Must be convinced.”

When Silicon Valley was calling, she was ready. “I was building robots to help people with physical and neurological disorders. but i wasn’t doing it for them Immediately. I was writing papers, I was writing grants, and painting a picture of the future, and it just didn’t look right. I just had this itch that I couldn’t scratch,” she said.

At Google, he co-founded Google X, the company’s research and development laboratory. She later held a senior executive role at Apple and was CEO of Qantas, a wearable health technology startup, in addition to her work at Nest. Most recently he served as a vice president at Google’s healthcare organization, before founding Yohana and taking on the role of CEO last spring.

Yohana is an American subsidiary of the Japanese company Panasonic, where Matsuoka is a Managing Executive Officer. “Panasonic started with a founder who really wanted to change people’s happiness,” said Matsuoka, of the more than 100-year-old company, with products like washing machines. The idea was to “give extra time for women to do what they want.” That fits in with the main mission Yohana, which aims to make people’s lives easier.

Matsuoka’s experience with children at home during the pandemic also sparked interest in Yohana’s idea. She knew that parents around the world were facing similar struggles. “A lot of the things that were happening for already busy families grew, it became impossible,” she said.

They leverage their past experiences to build a company with a culture and approach that is both innovative and scalable. “When I was in a big company, I knew I could achieve scale, but things move really slowly,” she said.

Matsuoka also talked about the difference in learning for children, their work at Apple and Google, and their foundation to help them start their new company in Seattle during a pandemic. Some other highlights from his GeekWire Summit session:

  • Why she chose Seattle to launch Yohana: “There are a lot of millennial, busy families living here. Their pain points are what I’m chasing after, I want to make sure they say, ‘Bullseye! You hit it!” She continued: “I think Seattle is a great place to do that right now.”
  • Matsuoka used funds from the MacArthur Prize to start the foundation, YokiworksTo support children with learning differences and dyslexia. Two of her children have dyslexia and she finds out that she has it too. “As I watch my son take a test and I was in the background as a mom, I’m trying to take it with me, ‘I can’t do any of those things myself!’ So it was a great find,” she said.
  • This summer she began to bring her crew back together individually again in a hybrid model at Yohana. At first, they spent a lot of time socializing, but within a few weeks the rapport of being together increased efficiency, she said. “One of the lessons from the pandemic was that humans still needed to be together sometimes.”
  • He compared the environments of Apple and Google. Apple has a “complex structure that works beautifully. And it is so design-oriented that they are able to produce beautiful user-first products,” she said. “Google just turns it upside down. So it’s a lot about bottom-up innovation. 20% of projects allow you to do something fun on the side of your job while you’re being paid,” she said. “Just because of that ability to create and innovate, and excite the people inside, they Can also make a lot of wonderful things.”

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