Rodney Brooks, Founder of iRobot and Heartland Robotics, To Retire From MIT
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objects using touch and vision—and can interact safely with people using compliant joints and movements—smart helper robots for the workforce may not be all that far off.
Reflecting on Brooks’s career to date—and understanding that he has been fiercely entrepreneurial throughout his years at MIT—I asked him about his continuing transition from the academic world to company life.
“Academic work is different from work in industry,” Brooks says. “In academia it is about developing new ideas and measuring their potential. In industry it is about making something that provides actual value to customers. The two are not always the same thing. And certainly the metrics of success are very different.”
For Heartland Robotics, success will mean putting a new generation of robots into the hands of manual workers, and empowering them in a similar way to how PCs revolutionized the information workplace. To help lead the charge, the company recently signed on a new CEO, Scott Eckert, formerly of Dell and Motion Computing. Brooks remains Heartland’s founder, chairman, and chief technology officer.
One last bit of perspective: In his keynote talk at the XSITE conference earlier this month, Brooks gave an example of exponential progress in robotics over the past 30 years. At the Stanford AI Lab, he said, a mobile robot he worked on back in 1979 took six hours to navigate a particular course 20 meters across a room. Fast forward to this decade, and Stanford’s autonomous robot car, Stanley (led by Sebastian Thrun), won the DARPA Grand Challenge for road-racing by navigating a 200-kilometer outdoor course in about the same amount of time—a little more than six hours.
That is the kind of progress in artificial intelligence and real-world interactions that Brooks is banking on here. And if all goes well, we could be looking at new labor markets and workplaces filled with robots in another decade or two.