Where Einstein Meets Edison

Are Workforce Robots the Next Big Thing? Rodney Brooks Gives a Definite Yes

Are Workforce Robots the Next Big Thing? Rodney Brooks Gives a Definite Yes

Apr 12, 2011

Is your favorite colleague at work human? Perhaps not for long, according to Rodney Brooks. For three decades, Brooks has been designing, building, testing, and selling robots. He is currently Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he directed the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). He has founded five robotics companies, including co-founding the immensely successful iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT). Brooks has designed robots that are found in space, households, and battlefields, including the NASA Mars rover, the Roomba vacuum, a gutter cleaning robot, and the bomb-defusing PackBot.

Brooks’ newest company, Heartland Robotics, recently named in Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal top ten list of promising new start-ups, does something different: it engineers robots for the workforce. In a recent talk at MIT, he listed compelling reasons why the market for robots, especially industrial robots, is expanding like never before.

Brooks predicts strong investment in automated manufacturing “closer to home” in consumer markets as the cost of transportation and labor from fast-growing emerging countries such as China continue to rise. According to Brooks, robots in the workforce will reinvigorate our economy, make humans more productive and our industry more competitive.

When will the robot revolution occur? Much like the computer revolution, Brooks believes the robot revolution will happen quickly and very soon. He believes robots are now where computers were fifty years ago. Back then, computers were used by a privileged few for narrow purposes and found almost exclusively in select universities, government agencies, and highly technical businesses. Today, however, computers are ubiquitous throughout the home and workplace, and have become indispensible in social, personal and business endeavors. Likewise, Brooks sees robots going from “dangerous to touchable” and from rigid to adaptable. He believes it will become commonplace for humans to work in close proximity to a robot with frequent intelligent interaction. Moreover, as computers continue to become more capable at an exponential rate, robots will too; the progress of these two technologies goes hand-in-hand as robots incorporate new sophisticated computer technology into their robotic DNA, making them more aware, responsive and teachable.

What humanoid skills from a robot worker can we expect in the near future? Brooks hopes that they will have the social skills of a human eight year old, the dexterity of a six year old, the language skills of a four year old, and the object recognition of a two year old.   Although recent research has brought us closer to these goals, he says we are still “several PhD theses away.” Nevertheless, the close proximity and frequency of intelligent interaction between humans and robots will inevitably become commonplace.

Heartland Robotics, of which Brooks is founder and CEO, has already received nearly $30M in funding from venture capitalists, including Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. If Brooks keeps up his pace, the day when robots are as much a part of our everyday working lives as computers is not far away.

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Grace Young is an undergraduate at MIT majoring in ocean engineering, with interests in robotics, physics, computer science, and architecture. Last summer she worked at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution building autonomous aircraft for ocean surveying. The summer before she worked at CERN, the large hadron collider, developing software for particle physicists, and at the Harvard-MIT Biomedical Cybernetics Lab in Boston applying statistical methods for bioinformatics. Her other work experience includes quantum computing research at The Joint Quantum Institute and analysis of electrical properties of carbon nanotubes at Johns Hopkins. She is a member of MIT’s varsity sailing team, Gordon Engineering Leadership Program, and Arts Scholar Program. She is also the 2012-2013 recipient of MIT’s Robert Bruce Wallace Academic Prize in Ocean Engineering.