How would you describe your role at Rethink?
I’ve been at Rethink for 8 years and did a lot of the early work on the Baxter UI and UX, including train by demonstration. I also developed the prototype for what became Intera 5. I have held a variety of titles from Principal Software Engineer to Director of UX to Rethink Fellow. I continue to explore ways to realize the vision of Rethink in our current and future products.
Rethink Robotics is one of the companies you’ve been with the longest. What is something about this company that stands out from others? Is it the products, projects, people, or something else?
All of the above. But over my career I have come to appreciate that start-ups take on the personality of their founders. Rod Brooks and Ann Whittaker had a huge influence on creating an incredible and very special company culture, one that combines passion with kindness and respect. And, of course, Rod’s pioneering vision for collaborative robots continues to be a big inspiration for all of us as we develop products that move ever closer to delivering on that promise.
From working at Apple and in the video gaming industry to teaching at MIT’s Media Lab and currently as the Rethink Fellow here at Rethink, you’ve had an interesting career. What product or project that you’ve worked on has been your favorite?
Oh geez, that is like asking who is your favorite child. Each product or project has been special in its own way. Being out in Silicon Valley in the 80’s and working closely with Steve Jobs at Apple and NeXT was an incredible experience. I joke that it was akin to being the guy in Gutenberg’s workshop who swept up the shavings. But I was in the room, learned a ton from him, and helped bring some great products to market. The Media Lab gave me a chance to be inspired by the elegant simplicity of animal behavior and learning in nature, and to explore how those ideas could inform the design of intelligent systems. My time in the video game industry taught me the importance of viewing interaction as an intimate conversation between the system and the user. Finally, Rethink has been an extraordinary opportunity to take all of these ideas and put them together. I am especially proud of our Intera 5 software platform because it really delivers on the maxim from my days at Apple and NeXT, that ‘simple things should be simple, and complicated things possible’.
What is it that appealed to you about robotics, coming from the world of animation and gaming, and how do the two tie together?
There are lots of things about robotics that I find appealing. I am a bit of a motion geek, so I love making things move, and in a way that feels intentional and explicable to an observer. But another constant in my career has been the emphasis on developing innovative products and tools that break down barriers and enable creative people to get the job done. Programming robots has traditionally been really hard so it is wickedly gratifying to have played a role in redefining how that is done. With Intera 5, people who know what they want the robot to do, but may not be robot programmers, can use train by demonstration and the powerful behavior tree paradigm of Intera 5 to tell Sawyer what to do. It is also gratifying to see how the rest of the industry has followed Rethink’s lead. We must be doing something right.
You also have quite the resume in the sport of running! First off, what keeps you running and can you tell us what was one of your favorite/most memorable races? You probably have lost count by now but roughly how many marathons/half marathons have you done?
Well…, I am an enthusiastic runner. While I ran in my 20’s, it was my kids who spurred me on to take up running again when I was in my late 50’s. I enjoy races from 5Ks to marathons, and have done my share, including Boston this year, but I must say that I just really enjoy getting out and running along the Charles River in the late afternoon. And yes, I do geek out over running shoes. Seriously though, there is a passage from the Bible that says, “let us run with perseverance the race set out for us.” Distance running is all about perseverance, and so is product development. Every day brings a new challenge, and rising to the challenge means the opportunity to rise to the next.