Rodney Brooks, Founder of iRobot and Heartland Robotics, To Retire From MIT

Famed robotics expert Rodney Brooks, the former director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), is retiring from academic duties at MIT as of this week. The co-founder and former chief technical officer of Bedford, MA-based iRobot will be focusing full-time on his newest company, Heartland Robotics, based in Cambridge, MA. Brooks’s new role as professor emeritus at MIT will be effective this Thursday, July 1. He is 55.

There is some question as to whether Brooks will be the youngest professor emeritus in the history of his department (electrical engineering and computer science). Reached by e-mail, Brooks confirms he is the youngest of the current crop of MIT professors who are retiring this year—at least those on a list announced at a faculty meeting last month. And current regulations at MIT say a professor must be at least 55 to achieve emeritus status, so he is probably among the youngest, at least in recent history. “It may be that come this Thursday I will be the current youngest emeritus professor at MIT, but I can’t say that for sure,” Brooks says.

Brooks is widely known for his scientific contributions to computer vision, mobile robots, humanoid robots, artificial intelligence, and artificial life. He did postdoctoral research at Carnegie Mellon University and MIT before becoming a professor at Stanford University (where he had done his PhD in computer science) and then MIT in 1984, where he has stayed as a full-time faculty member until now. Brooks was director of the MIT AI Lab before it merged with the Laboratory for Computer Science to form CSAIL in 2003. He stepped down as director of CSAIL in June 2007 to dive deeper into science and, as it turns out, to try to create a new industry.

“I spent my career at MIT developing new ideas for how to make robots intelligent. Through iRobot I have been very successful at getting robots out in the world based on those ideas. In terms of raw numbers the majority of robots that are sold today are behavior-based, and follow the ideas I worked on in the eighties,” Brooks says. “Now I am trying to develop a new class of robots for deployment in the real world that are based on the work that my students and I did during the nineties and later.”

In September 2008, Brooks announced he was leaving iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT), the consumer and defense robotics firm he started in 1990, to build a new company. Heartland Robotics, which is backed by Charles River Ventures and founder Jeff Bezos, is looking to bring intelligent, dexterous robots to industrial workplaces in order to boost productivity and revitalize U.S. manufacturing. It’s still very early, of course. But given Brooks’s recent advances in robots that can manipulate objects using touch and vision—and can interact safely with people using compliant joints and movements—smart helper robots for the workforce may not be all that far off.

Reflecting on Brooks’s career to date—and understanding that he has been fiercely entrepreneurial throughout his years at MIT—I asked him about his continuing transition from the academic world to company life.

“Academic work is different from work in industry,” Brooks says. “In academia it is about developing new ideas and measuring their potential. In industry it is about making something that provides actual value to customers. The two are not always the same thing. And certainly the metrics of success are very different.”

For Heartland Robotics, success will mean putting a new generation of robots into the hands of manual workers, and empowering them in a similar way to how PCs revolutionized the information workplace. To help lead the charge, the company recently signed on a new CEO, Scott Eckert, formerly of Dell and Motion Computing. Brooks remains Heartland’s founder, chairman, and chief technology officer.

One last bit of perspective: In his keynote talk at the XSITE conference earlier this month, Brooks gave an example of exponential progress in robotics over the past 30 years. At the Stanford AI Lab, he said, a mobile robot he worked on back in 1979 took six hours to navigate a particular course 20 meters across a room. Fast forward to this decade, and Stanford’s autonomous robot car, Stanley (led by Sebastian Thrun), won the DARPA Grand Challenge for road-racing by navigating a 200-kilometer outdoor course in about the same amount of time—a little more than six hours.

That is the kind of progress in artificial intelligence and real-world interactions that Brooks is banking on here. And if all goes well, we could be looking at new labor markets and workplaces filled with robots in another decade or two.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Editor in Chief. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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2 responses to “Rodney Brooks, Founder of iRobot and Heartland Robotics, To Retire From MIT”

  1. I spent a year hanging out in Hans Moravec’s and Red Whittaker’s robot labs at CMU around 1985, and then spent a year managing the Princeton Robotics lab. I’ve been thinking about the socio-economic implications of advancing automation on-and-off for a long time. Here is my current thinking on how these robots like Rodney Brooks is making can be a boon to humanity instead of a bane:
    “Beyond a Jobless Recovery: A heterodox perspective on 21st century economics”

    Essentially, the way forward includes a mix of a basic income (Social Security for all), a gift economy (like Debian GNU/Linux), democratic resource-based planning (with taxes, subsidies, and public works programs), and/or stronger local communities with greater self-sufficiency (like with RepRap and organic gardening robots). We have aspects of all those now, but we need to do better.

    Otherwise, our current economic system, based on a scarcity paradigm, will ironically use the tools of abundance in harmful ways — to fight over perceived scarcity rather than produce abundance directly with them. For example, right now military robots are ironically being built to enforce a social order based around making people work like robots, rather than just building robots to do the work instead. For a similar long-standing irony, we have built nuclear missiles to fight over oil lands, rather than just using the same technology to build clean energy systems (renewable and/or nuclear) for endless power and self-replicating space habitats for endless land.

    So, while I applaud what Rodeny Brooks is doing, I believe we need broader socio-economic changes to get the most out of what he and many other technologists are doing and otherwise avoid economic disaster. For example the US GDP grew 40% in the past decade with no net increase in jobs, and that’s before Heartland Robotics is selling products intended to replace people or, at least, allow fewer people to produce a lot more, which is what “productivity increases” means.

    Advanced robotics exposes at least three flawed assumptions in mainstream macroeconomics:
    * that demand for stuff and services is effectively unlimited;
    * that wealth from efficiency improvements will be evenly distributed; and
    * that most human labor will always have value.
    Without these assumptions, mainstream macroeconomic equations blow up with divide-by-zero errors. Robotics deployed within a low-tax capitalist framework invalidates all three of these assumptions in various ways. The result would be widespread suffering by most people in that society (see Marshall Brain’s novel Manna for an example of that) — unless we accept these implications and rethink several fundamental assumptions (including schooling and paid jobs) related to how our society would work if it is based around an abundance paradigm instead of the current scarcity paradigm.