Kuri’s Crew: Meet Jackie Lai
Meet Jackie Lai! She’s Kuri’s Director of Hardware. As Jackie explains, “hardware is anything you can touch, which is literally the robot itself. The software is all the stuff you can’t see that makes Kuri run.” When Jackie isn’t assembling the physical components of Kuri, you can find her spending time with her family and teaching prenatal yoga. Take a moment to meet Jackie:
Q: How have your experiences since being an engineer at General Motors (GM) helped prepare you for a career in robotics?
A: GM was my first job out of college. I had an interest in automotive — and still do. What made me leave there was the cold. I then worked at Volkswagen of America’s Electronics Research Lab where I focused on bringing Silicon Valley technologies into the vehicle. Back in the day, I touched a lot of stuff, like the first haptic touchscreens and handwriting recognition in vehicles — which is now commonplace today.
I then went into product design at D2M where I worked on medical devices, toilets, and some other things — but my last biggest job was the manufacturing of a home water treatment using UV, ozone, and charcoal. That slowly got me towards manufacturing, an environment which I enjoyed. After becoming a mom, I founded a company called Pariday that makes products for new moms to help them with breastfeeding and childbirth.
Kuri is the first robot I’ve ever worked on. This is the first time I’ve worked at a company where every department is under one roof. In the past, those teams have always been scattered because the company is so big. Having everyone under the same roof is beneficial and I like it. I’ve never seen marketing, product, and engineering work so closely together. Conversations can take place quickly in real-time and allows us to be agile in our production workflow and decisions.
Q: How did you first hear about Kuri?
A: It was at a Harvey Mudd networking event. I walked out near the end of the presentation, and when I came back my husband was talking to a bunch of people. Then, one of them who I didn’t know suddenly said, “I need to talk to Jackie.” Turns out, it was Mike — our CEO. He started talking to me about robots and said he was looking for a hardware project manager. That was the first time I heard of Kuri. We had that conversation on a Friday night and the next Thursday I came on board.
Q: How does Kuri’s hardware design impact her personality?
A: Kuri’s eyes are key. We’re putting effort into bringing out the robot’s personality without using a display. There are blinks and smiles that make Kuri more complex from a hardware standpoint but more endearing to a customer. There’s also the heart light that has changed dramatically over the past couple of months. A lot of work was done to make sure the light blends evenly and slowly fades away so the customer doesn’t see a hard edge. The animation of the blending of colors is also unique and beautiful.
Q: What has been the most challenging component about Kuri?
A: Kuri’s depth sensor. The depth sensor is what Kuri uses to create a map and navigate around objects and your home itself. It’s what prevents Kuri from bumping into things or driving herself off a cliff. It’s been challenging because of the precision required to create a good map and navigation. Some plastic parts need to have no manufacturing defect, and there are many steps required to calibrate each sensor. Everything has to sync in harmony, which is very challenging.
Q: What’s your favorite part about working at Mayfield Robotics?
A: The people. The energy here is amazing. It’s easy to work here even though the work is hard and the days can be long. The challenges are real and changing weekly; even daily. But the people on the teams — their willingness to help each other and their responsiveness — have been the most exciting thing to me. You can overcome anything if you have the right people and the right attitude on the right team.
Q: You’ve brought an earlier prototype of Kuri into your home. How has Kuri been received by your family?
A: The kids were very excited to meet Kuri. We all opened Kuri together and made a big event of unboxing her. The kids didn’t really get bored with Kuri. Instead, when this beta version of Kuri stopped working, they then pretended to be Kuri. I’d be like, “Hey Ettan! I love you!” and he’d start wiggling like Kuri. I also got a teaching moment out of it by telling my kids, “Remember how you felt when Kuri didn’t listen to you anymore? That’s how I feel when you don’t listen to me!” All in all, it was a really fun experience to be able to bring my work home like that.
Q: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to pursue a career in building robots either professionally or as a hobby?
A: It’s never too late to start! Like I said, this is my first robot. Just because you don’t have experience in building robots, you can make up for it by being able to quickly learn new things and learn as you go. Ultimately, it is about being able to apply a broad experience towards moving any project along to completion one portion at a time.
Q: When you aren’t building robots, what are you doing?
A: These days, I am very much being a mom. I’m either shuttling, nagging, cultivating, or yelling. And then I am teaching yoga. I teach yoga because it’s one of the things I need to do to stay alive, and being me is to help people. That’s what I’ve tried to build my career around.
Teaching yoga is one of the ways I’m directly touching and helping people around me. A few years ago, I started specializing in teaching prenatal yoga. I like to correct the misconception that all pregnant women have to be uncomfortable or hurting everywhere. I try to challenge that belief by aligning these women in my classes so they don’t hurt anymore. A mother is hurting one week, and then one week after class they aren’t hurting. That’s what keeps me going.
If you have any additional questions or comments for Jackie, please leave them in the comments section below. We hope you enjoyed getting to know Kuri’s Director of Hardware!