INTERVIEW: Akinsoft’s robots to help Turkey escape middle-income trap

INTERVIEW: Akinsoft’s robots to help Turkey escape middle-income trap
By Menekse Tokyay in Ankara January 7, 2016

With Turkey in danger of getting stuck in what economists call the middle-income trap, investing in technology offers one of the best ways to escape this. At the forefront of this push are companies like local software developer Akinsoft and institutions like Sabanci University in Istanbul, which are spearheading Turkey's push into the development of robotic technologies.

It was as far back as 2010 when Sabanci University introduced its first humanoid robot, dubbed SURALP (Sabanci University Robot Research Laboratory Platform). This robot was the culmination of eight years work and about $1mn in investment supported by the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TUBITAK), a state-run research and development institution.

Conducting academic research is one thing, commercializing it is another. It took another five years before Turkey’s first robot manufacturing facility was opened, when Akinsoft on December 26 launched its robotic subsidiary’s factory in the central province of Konya. The Akin Robotics plant will start mass production of its robots for commercial use from late 2016.

“Since my early childhood, I was so very interested in computers and technology,” Akinsoft’s chairman, Ozgur Akin, tells bne IntelliNews. “My initiative for manufacturing robots was the combined result of my personal interest and my far-sighted entrepreneurship thinking that one day these robots would be necessary for the daily lives.”

The company had already built a robotics laboratory in 2009 for carrying out R&D work, and introduced humanoid robot prototypes in 2011 and 2013, dubbed Akinci (Raider) and Ada (Island). These humanoid robots, which operate with artificial intelligence, can be found operating as waiters in branches of Cadde Meram Cafe, where they serve drinks and food, communicate with customers, and tot up bills to delighted customers.

The model Akinci, besides standing on its feet and walking, can also perceive the 3D environment that it is located in, focus on people nearby, hold things by using their robotic hands and conduct internet researches. Weighing 65kg and 160cm in height, the robot is controlled by voice processing and wireless networks to monitor its status. It sources energy from lithium-polymer batteries deployed on its body. The next prototype of Akinci will be able to learn and make facial gestures, while also interacting with people and playing with kids.

The company also completed in 2011 the R&D activities for Turkey’s first-ever robotics system designed for agriculture, dubbed PNCR, which aims to exclude human errors in the plantation of sensitive products like beets, and for use in fields to obtain the maximum crop yields.

Potential customers of Akinsoft’s commercially produced robots will be in the health, textile, agriculture, transport and retail sectors. The new factory is expected to manufacture new robots that will be able to sell tickets, take care of patients, distribute brochures to promote products in shopping malls, guide people in airports, collect their tickets, and even carry their luggage.

The company has so far invested TRY10mn (€3mn) to manufacture the prototypes, and says it will allocate a further TRY20mn for the new robot factory. Having over 2,000 existing customers for its software solutions in 24 countries gives the company a better insight into where to invest in this new technology, the company says.  

The price of the commercial robots will largely depend on the stage where mass production will start, though Akin stesses that the prices “will not be too extreme”, because like all good socially aware entrepreneurs these days he is looking for the product to play a part in human progress and socially benefit Turkey. “This technology plays an active role in decreasing manpower, working in a coordinated way, reducing life-threating risks and producing in a quicker manner to save people from the monotony of daily work,” he says.

Technological prowess

According to Akin, the level of development of any country depends on its technological progress that is supported by local firms. He claims the widespread use of these robots could provide Turkish people with the opportunity to work in more qualified areas by delegating basic services to the humanoid robots. 

The need for Turkey to invest further in such high-tech areas as robotics is a key part of the government's “2023 vision”, which is a list of goals released by the administration of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to coincide with the centenary of the Republic of Turkey in 2023. Turkey aims to become one of the 10 biggest economies in the world by increasing annual Turkish exports to $500bn, raising the country to high-income status with per-capita income of $25,000. Currently that stands at $18,800. 

Ankara now has six technoparks where, according to Peri Kadaster, director of strategy and marketing at Monitise, “Young people are meeting... to work together, share ideas and house their inventions. Now, technology and innovation are some of the leading industries in Turkey, and are becoming more socially accepted. It’s no longer an anomaly for young people to take up careers in the tech market; in fact, it’s a badge of honor.”

The oldest and largest of these technoparks is Technopolis in Middle East Technical University, which houses more than 250 companies. There were six Ankara-based companies included among the Deloitte Technology Fast 50 companies in 2014.

In the northwestern province of Kocaeli, near Istanbul, the government continues to work toward opening its first-ever “Informatics Valley”, which aims to become a global research, development and innovation centre on a 3mn-square-metre area, inspired by the Silicon Valley experience in California. The "valley" is looking to attract about 5,000 R&D firms, both local and foreign, involved in developing for production and export high-tech products in the areas of aerospace, pharmaceuticals, computers and electrical machinery.