The robot revolution is just beginning

April 26, 2012

Rodney Brooks (credit: MIT)

Rodney Brooks’ “lips are sealed,” as The Economist put it last week, about what exactly he and Heartland Robotics are up to in a converted warehouse in South Boston’s Innovation District. But venture capitalists have already gambled $32 million on the premise that whatever it is they produce, it’s going to set a whole new direction in the field.

Rodney Brooks has just resigned as MIT’s Panasonic Professor of Robotics to be chairman and chief technology officer of Heartland Robotics. In robotics, “today’s technology is going to look so incredibly primitive in a couple of decades,” he said. .

Over the years, Brooks set up several companies; his first big success was one that became known as iRobot, which introduced the vacuum-cleaning robot called Roomba. The company also produces military robots that are widely used by U.S. forces to disarm explosives and explore dangerous areas.

Brooks’ latest concept for next-generation robots could, he thinks, revolutionize manufacturing. Instead of huge machines that need to be kept inside protective cages so they won’t injure nearby workers, he envisions smaller, nimbler, more responsive robots that could work alongside people, helping them with tasks. The new robots, he says, will compare to today’s lumbering industrial robots in much the way that an iPhone compares to an earlier, room-sized mainframe computer.

Brooks isn’t revealing anything yet about what his new robots will look like, or what they’ll be capable of doing. But based on his comments at MIT, don’t expect them to look much like people. “If you make them too humanlike, people’s expectations go up, and they’re easily disappointed,” he said. “You don’t want to make it look like Einstein!”