Brooks Steps Down as CSAIL Head, Dives Back into Science

Quipping that he is experiencing “a scientific mid-life crisis,” legendary robotics pioneer Rod Brooks is stepping down as Director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Brooks’ reign at CSAIL, which he has directed since its 2003 formation, will formally end on Friday. However, today marks his first day in his new office, where he will take a year’s sabbatical from teaching to embark on two grand challenges of robotics and computer science.

I caught up with Brooks in his new robot-packed digs, a cavernous, high-windowed, cylindrical space in the Stata building known as “the nose.” The space, which feels like the insides of a giant turbine, is packed with robots, computers, and workbenches. (The picture I took shows Brooks with Domo, an upper torso humanoid robot created by doctoral student Aaron Edsinger.) A few students work silently in side spaces, while Brooks himself has set up his work area in one corner, tucked under a gigantic window that looks like the viewing port on a fictional nuclear submarine. “This is where my graduate students and robots live,” Brooks says. “I’m still moving in.”

The era that ends on Friday goes back well before CSAIL was hatched. Brooks, a native of Australia, arrived on the MIT campus in 1981 as a post-doc. He stayed two years, then briefly joined the Stanford University faculty. In 1984, he returned to MIT as an assistant professor, just as he was launching his first startup, a Silicon Valley company called Lucid that built compilers for the LISP computer language. Lucid grew to about 70 people until it crashed in 1992. In the beginning Brooks worked as the technical whiz behind the Menlo Park firm from his Massachusetts home. “I had a $140,000 house in Lexington with a $100,000 workstation in it,” he remembers.

At MIT, Brooks launched the career that eventually made him a world-renowned figure in artificial intelligence, specializing in mobile robots. In 1997, he was named director of MIT’s AI Lab. Six years later, the lab merged with the Laboratory for Computer Science to form CSAIL. Brooks has been CSAIL’s only head. He will be succeeded, effective Saturday, by Victor Zue, his longtime co-director.

Since he joined the MIT faculty in 1984, Brooks says, the departments he has been part of have produced some 80 spin-offs, including RSA Security (now owned by EMC) and Akamai. He stresses that he did not take part in spawning most of these offspring. But he was very involved in a 1990 spinoff called IS Robotics that he co-founded with former students Colin Angle and Helen Greiner. Eight years later or so, he notes, “We decided IS Robotics was a dumb name.” The new moniker was iRobot, a brand that became famous with the success of the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner. IRobot went public in November of 2005. Last year, the company reported $188 million in revenue, and a profit of $69.7 million.

Now that he is free of administrative duties, Brooks, 52, says he is setting aside several weeks to travel to Hong Kong and his native Australia, where he will take a diving trip to the Great Barrier Reef. Then he’ll return to MIT to dive back into science. “I’m going to burn my fingers with a soldering iron, just like the good old days,” he relates. More on his plans soon.

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