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 industrial robot. (Current machines have integration costs that are 5 to 10 times their capital cost, Brooks said—“it’s a big-company game.”)

Nevertheless there are pitfalls for VCs looking to invest in robots. “It’s tricky to be a robotics investor,” Brooks said. Not worse than other areas, he said, but the field has particular challenges. Such as:

It’s difficult to tell what is hard and what is easy. “A number of discussions with VCs have worried me,” Brooks confessed. Basically, a lot of fancy robotics demos out there look impressive but are not suitable for real-world products. The Honda humanoid robot, for instance, is a “wind-up toy,” Brooks said. If you change the environment slightly or something unexpected happens, the robot goes out of whack. He also told a story of visiting a lab in Tokyo where researchers had their robot pour Brooks a cup of tea. When they gave it a bottle of beer instead, the robot poured beer all over its feet—because the beer bottle was an inch shorter than the tea bottle. (Perceiving and understanding its environment is hard for a robot.)

It’s difficult to predict whether the market will be responsive to a radically new solution. This one isn’t unique to robotics, but perhaps it’s even tougher with robots. Brooks put up a slide of the “14 failed business models at iRobot” (courtesy of CEO Colin Angle). Among them: sell nuclear power plant inspection robots; sell land mine clearance robots; sell robots to the oil industry to stimulate production in wells; earn royalties on robotic toys; sell research robots to universities and hobbyists. You get the idea—timing is key.

Conventional top-down engineering often goes astray in developing a robust robot. People often think, well, a plane can pretty much fly autonomously, so why can’t robots do more? The difference is that the conditions a robot deals with in an unstructured environment—a home, office, or cave in Afghanistan—are hard to measure, and they change every few tens of milliseconds. As things come up, the robot needs to be flexible and adjust—and that’s hard to engineer.

All in all, pretty useful stuff from a guy who says he’s “tarred as impractical” because of his professorial career. VCs, take notice.

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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