MITEF: Robots Rove ‘Round Homes, Battlefields

Entrepreneurs Posted Oct 15, 2007 by metropolis

“Engineers make the suckiest user interfaces ever, they really do.”

Dr. Rod Brooks, CTO and cofounder, iRobot and Panasonic Professor of Robotics at MIT

That was my favorite quote of the evening from the brilliant and entertaining Dr. Rod Brooks, CTO and co-founder of iRobot and long-time director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. He keynoted last Wednesday night at the MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge event, “The Next Wave of the Robot Revolution.”

Brooks made that remark in the midst of a story about user-interface design for robots. An engineer he worked with complained that users didn’t know how to use his robot, and came to the conclusion that gives engineers a bad rep: “We need smarter users.”

Brooks cited a number of trends that robots are just tailor made to address:

  • Industrial societies need to outsource low-cost manufacturing
  • Aging populations will require more services
  • Cultural expectations of job satisfaction have changed dramatically
  • But some jobs can’t be outsourced (if they are location specific, like mining for example)

While we’ve come to accept robots as useful devices for search and rescue or assembly line work, in other cultures, they are more accepted as companions. For robots to make that leap, they will need to manipulate the world and to be more social, said Brooks.

Brooks observed that the more expensive robots are less autonomous; the less expensive robots are more autonomous. Expensive robots have usually been tailored for highly critical, high stakes tasks (space station repair), but tend to require a good deal of intervention. On the other hand, the Sony Aibo (sadly, discontinued) was cheap and pretty autonomous.

People do get attached. We’ve all read stories about folks naming their iRobot Roombas and you can buy a wardrobe for them here. (What’s next, rhinestone collars?)

Brooks shared photos from a war zone of one of iRobot’s bomb-detecting robots that a soldier had named Scooby Doo. Scooby sported his bomb tally in hatch marks right on his chassis, with both a count for IEDs and unexploded ordinance. But eventually one of those IEDs got the best of Scooby and the soldier sent him back to iRobot for repairs. The iRobot staffers explained they’d just send him a new one. The bomb technician replied: “I really want Scooby; we’ve been thru a lot together.”

Here’s Brooks’ recipe for the elements that make a successful robot, which he defines as a device that detects the world, computes and then changes the world external to itself. It’s no modest feat, as it requires:

  • The visual object recognition capabilities of a two-year-old child
  • The language capabilities of a four-year-old child (because they understand syntax completely)
  • The manual dexterity of a six-year-old child
  • The social sophistication of an eight-year-old

For background, check out the information on robots being developed at MIT’s Computer Intelligence and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) here. For a fun video of Domo, pictured above eating a banana, visit here.

In closing Brooks relayed that everyone always asks, “Did you get the company name from the movie, I, Robot?” And he has to respond that both parties stole it from the same place, the Isaac Asimov novel. (You can’t copyright a book title, he notes.)

But he adds that there are some interesting parallels with the movie. (He pops up a slide with a photo of the three iRobot cofounders on the day the company went public: himself, Helen Grenier (the chairman), and Colin Angle, the CEO. He explains that the movie also featured an academic like me, a smart woman like Helen and a dashing male lead like Colin. “But the academic is killed in the first scene, so I don’t like that movie very much.”

Brooks’ keynote was followed by a terrific panel made up of executives from established firms like Brooks Automation and ABB Robotics, as well as younger firms – Kiva Systems, North End Technologies and Vecna Technologies. Sorry to shortchange the panel, but I’m out of steam for now.

For other takes on the evening, see Candace Lombardi’s CNET article here, Wade Roush’s article here and a blog post from Binary Times here.