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Rethink Robotics & Rodney Brooks are Hyperconnected

I Made the Robot Do It

New York Times Sunday Review

Article Courtey of:  New York Times Sunday Review


Rethink Robotics - 43 Wormwood Street - Innovation District Boston MA

WHEN you hear the insane notion of “legitimate rape” being aired by a Republican congressman — a member of the House science committee no less — it makes you wonder some days how we became the world’s richest, most powerful country, and, more important, how we’re going to stay there.

The short answer is that, thank God, there’s still a bunch of people across America — innovators and entrepreneurs — who just didn’t get the word.

They didn’t get the word that Germany will eat our breakfast or that China will eat our lunch.

They didn’t get the word that we’re in a recession and heading for a fiscal cliff.  They’re not interested in politics at all.

Instead, they just go out and invent stuff and fix stuff and collaborate on stuff. They are our saving grace, and whenever I need a pick-me-up, I drop in on one of them.

I did just that last week, visiting the design workshop of Rethink Robotics, near Boston’s airport, where I did something I’ve never done before: I programmed a robot to perform the simple task of moving widgets from one place to another. Yup, I trained the robot’s arms using a very friendly screen interface and memory built into its mechanical limbs.

And therein lie the seeds of a potential revolution. Rethink’s goal is simple: that its cheap, easy-to-use, safe robot will be to industrial robots what the personal computer was to the mainframe computer, or the iPhone was to the traditional phone. That is, it will bring robots to the small business and even home and enable people to write apps for them the way they do with PCs and iPhones — to make your robot conduct an orchestra, clean the house or, most important, do multiple tasks for small manufacturers, who could not afford big traditional robots, thus speeding innovation and enabling more manufacturing in America.

“If you see pictures of robots welding or painting” in a factory, “you will not see humans nearby because it is not safe” being around swinging robot arms, explains Rethink’s founder, Rodney Brooks, the Australian-born former director of the M.I.T. Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the co-founder of iRobot, which invented the Roomba vacuum-cleaning robot.

Traditional industrial robots are fixed and not flexible, and they take a long time — and a skilled engineer — to program them to do one repeatable task.

“Our robot is low-cost, easily programmable, not fixed and not dangerous,” says Brooks. “We were in a small plastics company the other day, and the owner said he is using the robot for two hours to do one task and then rolling it over to do another. With our robots, you teach them about the specific task you want done, and when you are done with that, you program another one.” And if your hand gets in the way, the robot just stops.

The Rethink design team includes Bruce Blumberg, the product manager of the Apple LaserWriter — as well as 75 other experts from Russia, Georgia, Venezuela, Egypt, Australia, India, Israel, Portugal, Britain, Sri Lanka, the United States and China. “It is all made in America,” says Brooks, but by “the best talent” gathered “from around the world.”

This is the company of the future. Forget about “outsourcing.” In today’s hyperconnected world, there is no “in” and no “out.” There’s only “good, better and best,” and if you don’t assemble the best team you can from everywhere, your competitor will.

The Rethink robot will be unveiled in weeks. I was just given a sneak peek — on the condition that I did not mention its “disruptive” price point and some other unique features.

“Just as the PC did not replace workers but empowered them to do many new things,” argues Brooks, the same will happen with the Rethink robot. “Companies will become even more competitive, and we will be able to keep more jobs here. … The minute you say ‘robots’ people say: ‘It’s going to take away jobs. But that is not true. It doesn’t take away jobs. It will change how you do them,” the way the PC did not get rid of secretaries but changed what they did.

Actually, the robots will eliminate jobs, just as the PC did, but they be will lower-skilled ones. And the robots will also create new jobs or enlarge existing ones, but they will be jobs that require more skills. I watched a Rethink robot being tested at the Nypro plastics factory in Clinton, Mass. A single worker was operating a big molding machine that occasionally spewed out too many widgets, which forced the system to overload. The robot was brought in to handle overflow, while the same single worker still operated the machine. “We want the robot to be the extension of the worker, not the replacement of the worker,” said Michael McGee, Nypro’s director of technology.

This is the march of progress.

It eliminates bad jobs, empowers good jobs, but always demands more skill and creativity and always enables fewer people to do more things.

We went through the same megashift when our agricultural economy was replaced by the industrial economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Therefore, what this election should be about is how we spawn thousands of Rethinks that create new industries, new jobs and productivity tools.

Alas, it isn’t. So I’m just grateful these folks here in Boston didn’t get the word.

New York Times Sunday Review

Article Courtey of:  New York Times Sunday Review



About Rethink Robotics

Building the next generation of industrial robots.

Rethink Robotics was founded in 2008 by Rodney Brooks, a co-founder of iRobot and former Director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

The company’s mission is to bring to market a new generation of robots to improve productivity in manufacturing environments.

Rethink’s goal is to introduce robots into places that have not been automated before, making manufacturers more efficient, their workers more productive and keeping jobs from migrating to low-cost regions.

Rethink Robotic’s management team is comprised of professionals skilled in robotics, artificial intelligence, software development and systems engineering, complemented by business managers with a track record of growing startups into billion-dollar businesses.

The team includes:

Rodney Brooks – Founder, Chairman and CTO
Formerly Panasonic Professor of Robotics at MIT and Director, MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Rodney is also a founder of iRobot, inventor of the commercially successful Roomba as well as other robots marketed to industry and the military. Find out more about Rodney here.

Follow Rodney on Twitter (@rodneyabrooks)

Scott Eckert – President and CEO
A seasoned manager with experience in building high-growth businesses, Scott was Co-Founder, President and CEO of Motion Computing, the leading provider of tablet PCs for vertical markets. Prior to Motion Computing, Scott was an executive at Dell, Inc. and widely known as the chief architect and general manager of that company’s worldwide Internet strategy. Scott was also managing director for Dell’s Home and Small Business Division in the UK and Ireland, one of Dell’s largest international business units.

Jason Barton – VP Sales
Jason’s experiences center on selling innovative technology solutions to both commercial and consumer markets. He recently served as COO at EnergyHub, a maker of home energy management products. He joined EnergyHub from Segway, where he was Vice President of Global Sales and Marketing. Jason joined Segway from Palm, where he held progressive sales positions, ultimately leading sales for Palm’s U.S. enterprise business. Previously Jason led UK sales and marketing for Precor Inc., a manufacturer of premium fitness equipment. Jason earned a BA Honors Degree from the University of Wales.

Elaine Chen – VP Product Development
Elaine is a product development executive who has brought many new hardware and software products to market in startup environments. Prior to joining Rethink Robotics, Elaine served as VP Engineering and Product Development at Zeo, Inc., a startup in the consumer health and wellness space. She has also served as VP Product Management at Zeemote, Inc. and as VP Engineering at SensAble Technologies. Elaine holds a BSME and MSME from MIT.

Jim Daly – VP Manufacturing and Operations
An operations leader with a successful track record launching and ramping innovative new products, Jim was previously VP of Operations at consumer startups Zeemote and Tea Forte, Director of Manufacturing Operations for Handspring (acquired by Palm), and Manufacturing Director of Solectron’s Complex Systems Division. Jim earned a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and an MBA from Santa Clara University.

Mitch Rosenberg – VP Marketing and Product Management
Mitch’s career has focused on connecting vision to execution in technology firms offering disruptive innovations. His most recent role was VP, Marketing & Product Management for Kiva Systems, where he was an integral part of bringing the company to 6th place in the 2009 Forbes 500 ranking of the fastest growing privately held US companies. An MIT-trained electrical engineer with an MBA from Boston University, Mitch has held senior marketing and operations positions at Rivulet Communications, Imaging Automation, MultiLink, PictureTel , Kurzweil Computer Products, and Automatix.

Ann Whittaker – VP Administration and HR, Co-Founder
Ann’s experience includes various management roles at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the David Rockefeller Jr. Family Office, Millennium Pharma and PAREXEL International.

Rethink Robotics is fortunate to be backed by world-class investors:

Bezos Expeditions (the personal investment company of Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon)
Charles River Ventures
Highland Capital Partners
Sigma Partners
Draper Fisher Jurvetson

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