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meet the maker: matt williamson

in meet the makers by Ann Whittaker

An interview with Matt Williamson, director of technology development, by Ann Whittaker, co-founder and vp of hr at rethink robotics.

AW: Tell me about inventing the series elastic actuator. Did you and Gill Pratt have a Watson & Crick-type revelation? Did you dream of some animal that embodies sensitivity and repeatability? What would that animal be?!

Matt Williamson with the collaborative and industrial robot Baxter from Rethink Robotics

MW: I didn’t know anything about motors when I got to MIT. Gill did. But I knew about implementation. Gill was the theoretic visionary and I was the practical guy. I knew the springs for the series elastic actuator had to be strong and not stiff. But an animal? I don’t dream about animals! The solution came from thinking I needed to create a whole new kind of spring that could carry a load AND be flexible. And I do think it’s weirdly cool that we created a patent for a spring of all things in 1995! In my thesis, I proclaim that the series elastic actuator enables excellent force control out of inexpensive components, but in reality, I used expensive components. But now my work here at Rethink Robotics has brought the series elastic actuator to its full expression of my thesis, and we’ve finally made the SEA thoroughly efficient with inexpensive components.

AW: Do you remember when robots began to fascinate you?

MW: The truth is robotics is a hedge for me; robots are a way of avoiding having to specialize in any one thing. I’m interested in just about everything…and robotics requires that one needs to know a little bit about everything! You have to be good at so many different disciplines; math, physics, controls…you name it. It’s perfect for the jack of all trades, master of some!

AW: What brought you to the US? How do you manage to maintain your wonderful British sensibility and humor? You embody the guy Sting sings about (himself, I guess!) ; “I’m an Englishman in New York”.

MW: I came to the US to do my PhD. Where else would I go? The Head of Oxford told me that if I wanted to do robotics, I’d need to go to MIT, Stanford, UPenn or CalTech. I applied to all and chose MIT because….well, I don’t remember why! Maybe because of Rodney Brooks?!

AW: You have four children and your wife, Esther, is home-schooling them. I know you find delight in incessant discovery. How do you want your children to experience the world? What are your hopes for all children?

MW: Esther felt like the joy of learning had been beaten out of her in school and didn’t want that for our kids. I think education should nurture relentless interest in things and the ability to go after whatever grabs at your heart and intellect. Hopefully our world’s educational systems can evolve to do this for all children. And not force them to hedge their choices. To have the freedom and encouragement to discover…this is so very important.

(1 comment)


About the Author

Ann Whittaker

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.


1 comment on this article

Lili Meng March 7, 2014 at 1:26 am

Hi Matt,

It’s fantastic that you use the series actuator which is inexpensive for industrial robots applications !!! Only affordable and useful robots could make robot revolution! It’s a paradox that robots are a way of avoiding having to specialize in any one thing, but you have to know a little bit of everything and have to be good at so many different disciplines!!!


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