IRobot Co-Founder Brooks Leaves to Launch New Robotics Firm Aiming to Revitalize U.S. Workforce

9/2/08Follow @bbuderi

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a Series A funding round, though he would not name the lead investors or specify the amount raised. “We will be building on previous MIT work that Rod has directed, and we’ve already completed a licensing agreement with MIT,” he said. The men would not name the specific technology licensed, but Zolot did say that both he and Brooks feel “the time is right to do something big and revolutionary” in workplace and industrial robotics.

For his part, Brooks said he has been thinking of the idea behind Heartland for about a year, and that over the past few months things have really come together. He and Zolot said that Heartland embodies two important trends. One is that global labor markets are under increasing stress. The other is the widespread availability of low-cost computation and other components for robotics. Together, these trends have set the stage for a new era of industrial productivity through robotics. The men stressed that Heartland is not about replacing workers, but empowering them in much the way the wheel put more power into the hands of manual workers. “This really is about putting power into their hands,” says Brooks.

While the pair would not discuss Heartland’s exact plans in detail, it’s possible to form some good guesses. For starters, there’s this page on Brooks’ website at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), which bears one simple sentence about his ambitions under the heading “New Work:”

“I want to effect a powerful evolution in the world’s labor markets, and my current focus is to develop low-cost robots that will empower American workers.”

You can bet that’s Heartland. More clues come from what Brooks told Xconomy a year ago, after he stepped down as CSAIL’s director to go back to full-time teaching and lab work. Citing a “a scientific mid-life crisis,” Brooks told me at the time: “I’m trying to do for manual workers what PCs did for information workers, i.e., let ordinary manual workers become their own information engineer and increase their own productivity.”

Around 1980, computers were these huge, mysterious machines kept in special rooms, he explained. “Office workers ‘used’ computers by poring through fan-folded printouts of sales and stock reports. If they wanted a different analysis than what was delivered they had to defer to systems analysts, programmers, punch-card operators, and computer operators. They didn’t have direct control.”

The PC, of course, changed all that, especially with the rise of spreadsheets and other software programs that automated many office tasks and turned them from onerous to routine. Office workers, said Brooks, “became their own automation engineers, and they increased their own productivity.”

In looking at the robotics world today, Brooks noted that robots are pretty much where computers were back around 1980. Industrial robots—a space not occupied by iRobot, which makes consumer and military robots—take on many dangerous tasks in factories and other operations. But it takes automation engineers months to program them for new tasks.

Brooks was out to change that paradigm—both in factories and smaller, Mom-and-Pop operations. “My use case is a bakery in Cambridge, three or four people,” he told me. “They go on the web, click, click, click, they order a robot for 2000 bucks.” Then, when the robot arrives, “they don’t read a manual, because no one reads a manual.” Yet, he said, by employing a combination of natural language and physical demonstration of the job at hand, the bakery workers could program their new robot to tackle basic, rote tasks that previously had to be done by them manually. “They won’t even think of it as programming,” he said.

By thus empowering American workers and boosting their productivity, Brooks said that robots could make U.S.-based manufacturing a viable alternative to outsourcing in many circumstances. “This can be a force for evolving in a different direction from the way we have been heading the last 50 years,” he said. “That’s my plan.”

As he added in today’s phone call: “I want to change the world. That’s what we’re going to do.”

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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