An interview with Rodney Brooks by Ann Whittaker, co-founder and vp of hr at rethink robotics.
AW: I know you have at least ten hugely creative ideas every day, and that you churn stuff until it’s just right. Do you remember the “aha” moment when you knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that you wanted to take a stab at leveraging robots in an entirely new context?
RB: I rarely have an “aha” moment. Instead I keep churning the ideas over and over until they gel more and more, and by that time they have sort of become inevitable in my mind. I knew from my experience manufacturing in China, and from talking to the founders of lots of Taiwan-based companies, that low cost labor for manufacturing in China was not inevitably going to be our outsourcing solution forever. So I was eager to see how to re-envision robots so that unlike existing industrial robots they could be part of the solution. And that is when it seemed right to start a new company to build this new class of robot.
AW: Was part of your process a desire to be the first to manufacture a mass-produced, humanoid robot? How do you think this changes the game for robots as they’re integrated into all aspects of our lives?
RB: When we started Rethink Robotics (then called Heartland Robotics) I wasn’t thinking that the robot would necessarily be a humanoid. I knew it would have one or more arms (I liked the idea of three, just because no other robot has three!), and cameras so that it could detect people and the objects that it was to interact with. And I knew it had to be intuitive to train so that factory workers would view it as a tool that they could use rather than some opaque technology that just made their workplace more alien. Over time we decided that a humanoid form was the right thing so that the way the robot does tasks can be taken over by a person should the robot be busy elsewhere, and so that people would instantly understand what the robot was doing, and through its gaze direction just where it intended to move next.
AW: You’re a naturalized US citizen; what are your hopes for the future of our country? For our world… for humanity?
RB: I want our country to be self sufficient – even though the world is flat – and to be able to supply itself and provide a good standard of living for all who live within its borders. Bringing manufacturing back is part of that. A generous spirit towards all is another part.
After we get manufacturing done, I think I might try moving on to agriculture. The Cloud can probably save 90% of the water used in farming and perhaps even 90% of the land, and thus make our environment a whole lot better than the direction it is heading.
AW: Please share the details of some of the really cool things you create in your spare time.
RB: The last couple of years I’ve been building a modern architecture digital computer out of technology that was known around the 1860’s. It was just a matter of putting it together the right way. I am still debugging it, and sometimes it catches fire, but I have had it running simple programs. It includes 64 bytes of RAM, and I have built every bit by hand.
AW: You’ve traveled the globe several times over. What are some of your favorite places on our amazing planet?
RB: In terms of urban environments I think that on the water in Sydney Harbor amongst hundreds or thousands of sailboats with the Opera House in the background can’t be beat. And I do like the Great Barrier Reef in northern Queensland, or really anywhere with great snorkeling, such as Hawaii. This year I was in the Pantanal in Brazil, following giant river otters upstream as they caught the scent of a jaguar on the bank, and then all started screaming at it. Then another jaguar came out of the jungle to chase the first one across the river and out of its territory. That was certainly a National Geographic moment!
About the Author
Ann is a co-Founder of Rethink Robotics and VP, People & Culture. She has developed strategic and tactical expertise in the operational and human resources domains, creating an engaging, vital culture in which corporate objectives are achieved and employees flourish. Prior to co-founding Rethink Robotics in 2008, Ann held high-level administration and communications roles in educational, philanthropic and life sciences organizations. Her past affiliations include MIT’s Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the David Rockefeller Jr. Family Office, Millennium Pharmaceuticals and PAREXEL International Corporation. Ann holds a BA from the American University and an MBA from Babson College. She currently serves on the Board of Trustees for the Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall School and previously served on the Senior Advisory Board of Cellanyx Diagnostics.