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

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Yoky Matsuoka speaks at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Dan DeLong)

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

But when she was starting to build her new venture, the personal assistant service Yohana, launched in September, her thoughts did not immediately turn to robots or artificial intelligence. Instead, the new service relies front and center on human assistants, who can help perform tasks such as scheduling haircuts and taking care of snacks for kids’ soccer matches.

Matsuoka said she wants to help people now, rather than later in the future.

“So when I looked at it that way, there had to be human in the equation,” said Matsuoka at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle Tuesday. It’s only behind the scenes that Yohana has put a heavy focus on developing tech tools and data repositories to support the human assistants.

“I’m not trying to lessen humans, I’m actually trying to enhance the experience with you.” she said. “I know the field very well, but I’m also a consumer with a busy family. I have four kids … every day is hard.”

Aiming to have an immediate effect on people’s lives has been a theme through Yohana’s career, which began not in science but on the tennis court. As a teenager growing up in Japan, she was on track to build a career as a professional tennis player, but was sidelined by a series of injuries. “Luckily I loved math and science,” she said, “so I pivoted to build a robot for myself to play tennis against.”

She never did build that perfect tennis partner. But through graduate school at MIT she focused on robotics, pulling in studies in neuroscience. “I learned how to machine shop, I learned how to build everything from scratch, and I built a humanoid robot with arms and hands,” she said.  Afterwards as an academic at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and at the U.W., she focused on artificial intelligence, robotics, assistive technologies and artificial intelligence.

The MacArthur award, she said, was a pivot point for her. She received a call from the foundation the night after her mother-in-law had passed away, with an 8-day old infant in her arms. When she picked up the phone they asked, “Are you holding anything fragile in your hand?” and she said, “Yes.”  They called her a half hour later with news of the $500,000 award.

“I’m a girl who grew up in Japan and pivoted to technology a little bit late. And I always felt a little bit insecure,” she said. “But this award allowed me to say actually, some people like me OK. So I can lean in a little further, maybe I can say a little bit more, maybe I can create more things and I should be confident.”

When Silicon Valley came calling, she was ready. “I was building robots to help people with physical and neurological disorders. But I wasn’t doing it for them right now. I was writing papers, I was writing grants and painting a picture of the future, and it didn’t feel right. I just had this itch that I could scratch,” she said. “I thought maybe this is the place that I can actually learn to build something.”

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

Yohana is a U.S. subsidiary of the Japanese company Panasonic, where Matsuoka is a managing executive officer.  “Panasonic started off with a founder who wanted to really change the happiness, of people,” with products such as washing machines, said Matsuoka of the more than 100-year old company. The idea was “to give extra time for women, so that they can do something that they want and they can be reasonable. And I thought, yeah, that’s it.” That core mission fits with that of Yohana, which aims to make people’s lives easier.

Matsuoka’s experience during the pandemic with children at home also accelerated interest in her company. She knew parents around the world were experiencing similar struggles. “A lot of things that were already happening for busy families just got amplified, and it became just impossible,” she said.

She leveraged her previous experiences to generate a company with a culture and outlook that is both innovative but scalable. “When I was at a large company, I knew that I could achieve scale, but things move really slowly,” she said.

Since Yohana launched in Seattle last month, the company been paring down its waitlist for services. And while humans are key to what Yohana does, she sees the role of artificial intelligence and automation growing with time. “That insertion is one of those wedges that keeps getting bigger and bigger,” she said. “AI should be utilized to make that human experience better.”