Robots Here, Robots There

By Lawrence Goodman / July/August 2013
July 9th, 2013

When Rodney Brooks cofounded iRobot in 1990, he had no idea how attached people would become to the company’s core product, a robotic vacuum cleaner called the Roomba. “We didn’t expect people would take the Roomba on vacation,” he said at a Commencement forum on the democratization of robotics. “You know, you can even buy Roomba clothes.”

Brooks’s latest project, the Baxter industrial robot, promises to increase our attachment to robots even further. Designed to perform routine tasks in factories, it has two arms and a computer screen for a head that shows a pair of friendly eyes that shift in the direction of wherever it reaches. Unlike much heavy machinery in manufacturing plants, Baxter doesn’t need to be set apart from workers. Its sensors monitor its environment to prevent it from harming humans. Workers with no programming knowledge can teach Baxter. They need only move its arms to demonstrate a desired action until the machine “understands” what it’s supposed to do. “An ordinary person can just pick it up and figure it out,” Brooks said. Rethink, the Boston-based company he founded, began selling Baxters last September for $22,000 apiece.

Brooks, who is an emeritus professor of robotics at MIT, said society has nothing to fear from the attachments  humans can develop with robots. He said Baxter doesn’t take away jobs from workers, but instead helps do repetitive, boring tasks they dislike doing anyway. He predicted that governments will develop regulations to control the spread and impact of robots. And he said robots with artificial intelligence—the ones you see in sci-fi movies—remain a Hollywood fantasy. Instead, he said, robots will most likely assist the elderly with household tasks so they can “stay in their homes longer and maintain control over their lives.”

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July/August 2013