Rodney Brooks at NVCA: Why the World Needs Robots, and What VCs Need to Watch Out For

4/7/11Follow @gthuang

The world needs robots, hopefully more than Mars needs moms.

The first part of that was Rodney Brooks’s message in his talk at the annual meeting of the National Venture Capital Association in Boston yesterday. Brooks, of course, has a strong interest in seeing the mass adoption of robots. He’s the co-founder of iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT) and Heartland Robotics, the Boston startup that aims to revolutionize U.S. manufacturing. Brooks retired last summer from an illustrious 29-year academic career, mostly at MIT, to focus on Heartland, which raised a $20 million Series B round last fall.

Here are a few takeaways from the Brooks talk, which was delivered to a room of venture capitalists:

Brooks started by making the economic case for mainstream robots. The populations of Europe, Japan, and the U.S. are getting older, he showed—the ratio of elderly to young people is increasing. That means “older people are competing for the physical services of younger people, so the price goes up too,” he said. “Physical stuff that needs to be done for people will get much more expensive.” And robots are a way to help do that stuff more efficiently, he said—think robotic wheelchairs or simple machines to lift and carry groceries and heavy items.

Brooks then traced the geographic path of low-cost manufacturing since World War II. He showed that the U.S. has outsourced cheap industrial labor to a series of countries—first Japan; then Korea, Taiwan, and China; and then Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. Next up: Burma, Bangladesh, and perhaps African nations. “I don’t think this is sustainable in the long term,” Brooks said. “Everyone comes up in this flat world.”

He didn’t give an overt commercial for Heartland Robotics—the company is still pretty guarded about its technology—-but the idea (as I understand it) is that inexpensive helper robots in factories and workplaces could increase U.S. competitiveness, and eventually lead to what Brooks calls the “third wave of the industrial revolution.”

I gleaned a few more hints about what Heartland’s robots might be able to do. Judging from Brooks’s research over the years in computer vision, object recognition, dexterous manipulation, and interactive robots, I’m guessing they’ll be aware of people and objects around them and what exactly they’re looking at. They’ll be able to pick up and manipulate simple items, all while being safe for people to be in close quarters with. Most of all, they’ll be cheap and easy to use—a new breed of … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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