Robots and AI: Inside Dyson's ambitious plans for the future

Robotics research lab at Dyson Global Headquarters in Singapore.
Robotics research lab at Dyson Global Headquarters in Singapore. Photo credit: Dyson

How cool would it be if AI-powered robots weren't gimmicks, but served as highly valuable life aids - especially for elderly people who really need the help?

Earlier this year I travelled to Singapore and visited multiple Dyson sites where the company let me see some of how it does what it does, but also gave insight into some of what it plans to do next.

Robotics labs showcased automated helper bots while company executives spoke of a future where data from millions of connected devices around the world was constantly monitored and dynamically used to enhance device performance in real-time.

I saw inside a manufacturing plant where robots had replaced humans, moving about carefully avoiding each other while picking up vacuum components from one line of industrial robots and taking them over to another.

It was an impressive look at a company that features highly advanced robotics in its operations and already has robotic products in market, but is also just at the start of what it is gearing up to do with robots.

However, as impressive as it is to see such advanced technology in action, you always have to question what it actually means for everyday people.

John Churchill is Dyson's chief technology officer (CTO) and he believes the most exciting thing about the robots currently in development is how they'll give people more time.

"Imagine having your home cleaned automatically without you having to worry about it - imagine the time that gives you back. That kind of convenience and efficiency is a game changer," Churchill told Newshub.

"I think in the next decade we're going to see a better quality of life through robotics, especially for elderly people. The technology will give them more confidence and give them some of their life back. We're in that dawn of change in bringing robotics to a mass space to solve some of the problems that come with an ageing population.

"Those products will be able to help people who need assistance in later life, or need companionship - there's the potential for the technology we're creating to go and solve those kinds of problems in the next 10 to 20 years."

Robotics research lab at Dyson Global Headquarters in Singapore.
Robotics research lab at Dyson Global Headquarters in Singapore. Photo credit: Dyson

In 2020, Dyson announced it was investing £2.75 billion over the next five years, with an emphasis on developing solid-state battery cells but also high-speed electric digital motors, sensing and vision systems, robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).

AI and robotics have made countless headlines in recent years, as what was previously only depicted in science fiction has increasingly become reality. But with it has come a great deal of gimmickry.

What will the Tesla Bot actually do - besides look cool on stage alongside Elon Musk and cost an unimaginable amount of money - if it ever gets released?

When are we all going to migrate most of our lives to Mark Zuckerberg's Metaverse - weren't we supposed to have done that by now?

Where AI and robotics are actually being implemented in our daily lives is in ways that are immediately functional, rather than potentially functional at some point.

Although Dyson is being secretive about exactly what its advanced robots will look like and what the will do, it has teased robotic arms stacking dishes, picking up toys and vacuuming furniture like sofas.

Dyson robot prototype vacuuming a lounge chair.
There are plans for much more advanced robot vacuums in the future. Photo credit: Dyson

These tasks may not be what we've seen in sci-fi movies but if priced reasonably, they could well be the kind of robots we'll actually see in homes in the near future. They also build on what Dyson is already known for.

"Automation is going to be huge for Dyson. Think of the corded vacuum cleaner, which became a cordless vacuum, which became a robot vacuum - what comes next?" said Churchill.

"Where does that automation go - what are the tasks in the home or outside the home we'll apply it to next? Using new technologies to automate more manual tasks is an amazing space for us."

Churchill said Dyson is very lucky to be a "trusted brand within the home", which should mean these new technologies will be more readily adopted by existing customers - despite how scary robots and AI might be.

"With robotics in the home, people are going to look for a great degree of trust in the products. So I think that's going to be something that's going to define us for the next few years - and that will mean challenges for some other manufacturers."

Dyson CTO John Churchill.
Dyson CTO John Churchill speaking at the 'Future of Clean' event at Dyson Global Headquarters in Singapore in April. Photo credit: Dyson

A new chapter

Founded in 1991, Dyson has now been operating for more than three decades. Although it's still known to many as a company that makes powerful but expensive stick vacuum cleaners, it's also known to many others as the company behind some of the most luxurious haircare products around. 

It's also known for its air purifiers, including most recently the wacky Zone - a purifier you wear on your face. How this line of products is related to health - and Dyson's research over the years on topics related to vacuuming and dust - will be built on with the mysterious upcoming devices.

"We're working on products in a number of categories that I can't tell you about, but they're going to take us into new spaces under the broad themes of health and wellbeing," Churchill said. 

He added these products would be "analogous to medical devices" because of the level of engineering Dyson exercises in existing products. As an example, he pointed to the piezo sensors in the company's recent vacuum models that monitor how many particles of what size are being collected, displaying this for the user but also adjusting the machine's performance dynamically as needed.

"So if you can imagine with that cultural philosophy where we're really looking for the highest levels of accuracy in products that monitor their performance and adapt to different conditions, we're almost producing a product plus providing a monitoring system as part of the offer," Churchill said.

"I think we're going to get to the next level of engineering. We've been mechanical, then electromechanical, now we're probably going to go molecular. I mean molecular in terms of having to get into a different level of size and scale, and the chemistry and physics behind the technologies."

While ChatGPT has won the lion's share of media coverage on AI over the past year, most tech companies have now made claims about their own AI efforts with varying levels of believability.

There can be great novelty found in chatting with an AI bot, or having custom video, audio and still images created by them. But Dyson is more fixated on using AI in less novel ways to bolster what its products already do.

A robotics research lab at Dyson Global Headquarters in Singapore.
Robotics research lab at Dyson Global Headquarters in Singapore. Photo credit: Dyson

"Creating bespoke, integrated electromechanical sensors - be those vision systems or other types of sensors - is a key part of the AI vision for us at Dyson," said Churchill.

"The intelligence we've developed in our motors over the years has been the start of our AI. I mean things like dust detection, auto-sensing, things we've developed within our products to adapt their functionality and performance based on the environment.

"The capabilities of our own sensors will give us an advantage in different product categories. And then there's also the changing of focus from hardware to software. Our software team has grown dramatically and we're looking at growing it further, from 600 to over 1000 in the next few years."

Churchill mentioned the My Dyson app, which he said is going to get a series of updates to add new functionality and features that will "really personalise that experience for efficiency". 

"The next level of personalisation is where we want to go with AI," he said.

"That would mean, for example, robotic devices having a greater understanding of your home and which areas need the most thorough cleaning, but also knowing your routines and when is the best time to perform its various operations.

"We see the AI experience with Dyson trying to make everything seamless. It will be very functional and practical, but also with the greatest scrutiny on privacy for any personal data. We've got to remain being trusted and keep on adding value."

Machine learning will also be used more by the company as it draws upon the vast amounts of data it's amassing that will help its design processes, Churchill said.

"We have aspirations to look out of the home and get more into connectivity, more into electronics and solve different problems that we have we haven't looked into before. Looking into new categories is very inspiring because there's so much new potential, lots of white space," he said.

"Over our first 30 years, we were originally just in one or two categories. Then we transitioned into being a global company in 84 markets and now we're looking forward to seeing how we can be a global innovator in multiple categories. But we always want to maintain that constant Dyson setting of the highest bar for innovation, quality, performance and function."

Churchill also emphasised how important sustainable technology will be in the company's next chapter, pointing to how it has started removing consumable items and its efforts to make products more energy-efficient.

Dyson engine prototyping.
Dyson manufactured its 100 millionth digital motor in 2021. Photo credit: Dyson

Indeed, building its own modern batteries appears to have been a major part of its strategy in recent years, for financial as well as environmental reasons.

"Dyson building both the motor and the power system is going to be a massive differentiator for us. The products we produce having all Dyson components inside, rather than having to rely on third parties - that's going to mean a huge advantage."

An acceptance of failiure

"Don't be afraid to fail," Arnold Schwarzenegger said during a legendary motivational speech in 2009. "In everything I have ever attempted, I was always willing to fail... You can't be paralysed by fear of failure or you will never push yourself. You keep pushing because you believe in yourself and in your vision, and you know that it's the right thing to do. Success will come, so don't be afraid to fail."

Schwarzenegger is one example of an extreme high achiever who has talked often about his failures being as important as his successes. Sir James Dyson is another.

He wrote a book with the subtitle 'A Life of Learning through Failure' and over the years has talked many times of the 5126 failed prototypes he made before finaly landing on the world's first bagless vacuum that didn't lose suction as his 5127th.

At the Dyson Global Headquarters in Singapore's historic St James Power Station building, in a prime position near the entrance, a Dyson car is proudly showcased. It was produced as part of the company's automotive project - a project that was scrapped in 2019.

The display is meant to emphasise the company's message that it accepts its failures and even celebrates them while in pursuit of lofty ambitions.

But how much of that message is just branding? How accepting is Dyson of potentially losing some of the billions it's investing into these big new projects if some of them fail?

The Dyson Zone.
The Dyson Zone in use. Photo credit: Newshub.

The company's electric car isn't the only project it's launched that has failed to develop the cult following of its most successful vacuums and haircare products. But the Zone - the wearable air purifier released in some markets this year but not yet New Zealand - has had arguably the most negative response for a Dyson product yet, at least in Western media.

In Singapore at the company's 'Future of Clean' event in April, CEO Roland Krueger said the Zone was disrupting Dyson itself after the company had became known for disruption of the vacuum market and the haircare market.

He also described it as being the one product in Dyson's repertoire that most represents the company's next chapter. That was after a mixed response to the device's initial announcement, but before the slew of full reviews were published, many of which are negative.

"The Zone represents the underdog element of Dyson. It shows we're willing to create a product that is really disruptive and bold, and we might not care about some of the ways it will be perceived," Churchill told Newshub more recently.

"I think it's almost a kind of concept / beta product that came into production. For me that demonstrates the daring, pioneering spirit of Dyson - it's us living those values we talk about. That will polarise, but we accept that."

Churchill also explained that Zone represents multiple technologies Dyson has worked on and how they are now able to be miniaturised to the size of something that could possibly be wearable. This wouldn't have been possible even just a few years ago.

As the company's first wearable device and first audio device, the Zone represents Dyson moving into two new categories dominated by industry titans like Apple, Sony and Samsung. 

A wearables lab at Dyson Global Headquarters in Singapore.
Wearables lab at Dyson Global Headquarters in Singapore. Photo credit: Dyson

"It's kind of a new dawn with a new category that we created. It's very different to the technologies that other companies have and there's something very Dyson about it in terms of, you know, those engineering verticals," said Churchill.

"It's also a generation one product. So I've worked on a number of these and generally the first generation opens the door, but then there are iterations and if you keep going with those threads they take you in new, exciting, different directions. With generation one products you're learning and trialling, you're looking for acceptance, you're hearing feedback. It's really the start of a product category rather than an endpoint." 

Considering the relatively high prices people are willing to pay for Dyson's flagship vacuum, purifier and haircare products, and how happy many of those customers are said to be with their purchases, the company could have easily expanded with many more products than it currently offers.

However, it's opted to keep a tighter focus than many other recognisable tech brands, which is a key part of its identity.

"We want to go deep into everything we do - we want to be the knowledge owner or the authority of knowledge in our categories. So we would rather do less products, but have more depth," said Churchill. 

"The high regard with which people perceive our brand means we could put 'Dyson' on a toaster, for example, and people would buy it. But we steer clear of that because we want to have the domain expertise with our products.

"That's the difference between a short-term manufacturer brand strategy versus a true pure play technology company, when you're resisting any temptation to monetise because you see that your value is a slower burn."

Whatever happens in the coming years as the company apparently readies AI-powered robots for mass release, its leaders are eager to maintain that tighter focus - and with it the Dyson reputation.

"I think that's why people really trust us and appreciate what we're doing, because we're going to the nth degree that other companies wouldn't have got to. They maybe get to 70 or 80 percent when we're getting to 99," said Churchill.

"Over Dyson's 32 years, that's been an amazing strategy that has brought us a huge amount of success. It means we've constantly been seen as the pioneer in the things that we do, rather than just being another player in the category."

Newshub travelled to Singapore as a guest of Dyson.