Rod Brooks on the Holy Grail of robotics

Rod Brooks, the robotics guru who co-founded iRobot and now runs a startup called Heartland Robotics, is speaking at the Nantucket Conference. He thinks robotics has been stymied by a basic cost problem: it costs 10 times more to integrate robots into product lines than the robot itself.

That means it’s only cost-effective to use robots in high-volume, high-value product lines. He believes that he can create robots that trash this model and make it cost-effective to use robots in a wide variety of manufacturing environments, eliminating the cost advantages of countries with cheap labor.

Brooks is cagey about when this might happen.The one thing he said about Heartland is that “we’re not doing anything with batteries or wheels.” He stonewalled me afterwards, in a charming and good-humored way.
He did throw out these four Holy Grails for robotics:

  • make robots as visually adept as a two-year old child.
  • give robots the language capabilities of a four-year old child.
  • give robots the manual dexterity of a 6 year old – (this may need the development of new materials).
  • give robots the social awareness of an 8-year old child (he used the 8 for symmetry, but really, the goal is to be at a 9-year-old’s level).

He does not think much of the video-friendly humanoid robots being developed in Japan.

“I see Japanese companies as kind of lost,” he said. “The videos are great, but they’re awfully … it’s great engineering but no applications.”

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