Why the 'cute robots' don't work for Rodney Brooks

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Rodney Brooks and his company are building robots to work alongside humans in factories but should workers be concerned for their jobs?

Rodney Brooks is a roboticist who despises cute, seal pup-eyed "companion robots".

"Robots should work!" he shouts during an otherwise calm interview in the Boston headquarters of Rethink Robotics, the company he founded in 2008. Asking Brooks about cute, "useless" robots makes him wild.

As one of the inventors of the Roomba vacuuming robot and the roadside bomb disposing PackBot, Brooks has made robots work for humans perhaps more than any other robotics engineer. Now he's making robots to work alongside humans in factories.

"We're trying to change the nature of robots in factories," Mr Brooks says from the Boston headquarters of Rethink Robotics, where engineers tinker with dozens of robots in the open office space.

Factory focus

Manufacturers the world over complain that no one wants to do the mundane dirty work required in factories, especially the young. The average age of a skilled US factory worker is now 56.

In China, once the offshore labour capital of the world, rising costs and a higher standard of living make it increasingly difficult for manufacturers to attract and retain workers.

Image source, Rethink Robotics
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Baxter was the first robot Rethink brought to market

Traditional robots can often take over duties turned down by human workers but Mr Brooks says these machines can take more than 18 months to be installed, often at prohibitive costs. The systems require highly skilled technicians and operators.

The key to his latest robots "Baxter" and "Sawyer" is that ordinary people can easily train them, no PhD or engineering degree required. He says the company aims to make Baxter and Sawyer as easy to program as smart phones.

'Rise of the robots'

Rethink Robotics started selling Baxter the robot for just $25,000 in 2012. Baxter was designed to work nimbly alongside humans in factories, able to change tasks and move easily around the factory floor when tasks changed.

Sawyer, their other robot costs $29,000 and is now for sale around the world. Recently Rethink Robotics struck a deal with Shanghai Electric which will distribute the machines in China.

Image source, © Stephen F. Bevacqua
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Can humans and robots work side by side?

But some people remain nervous about the growing role of robots.

Martin Ford, the author of "Rise of the Robots", says robots will change the global economy in drastic ways beyond manufacturing. White collar jobs, are equally susceptible and likely more at risk, he says.

"I think it's inevitable that robots will displace a lot of jobs, if you have a PhD in science and engineering, you're probably safe. But that's not many people," Ford says.

"We can't stop it. We can't educate ourselves out of it. Top level, highly creative, highly skilled jobs will survive. But most people do average stuff. Even if we tried we couldn't educate every person to be a rocket scientist or brain surgeon."

Baby boomers need bots

Mr Brooks is less concerned. He thinks fears of robots taking over jobs are overblown and that robots will improve people's lives.

"I think there's a misconception amongst the wealthy people in the bubble that there are endless rows of people wanting dull, boring jobs in factories. It's not true," Mr Brooks says, adding that robots will become more pervasive in society as baby boomers age and require more self-driving cars and home healthcare.

Image source, Rethink Robotics
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Rodney Brooks says robots have "been his life"

Mr Brooks became interested in robots as a child growing up in Australia. By age 4, he was known as "the professor" because of his mathematical skills. His mother bought him two books on computers and he was hooked.

"Since I was 7 or 8 I've wanted to build robots or computers. That's been my life," he said.

Out of control?

He was the first in his family to attend university and eventually he earned a PhD in computer science at Stanford University, working in Silicon Valley before it was dubbed "Silicon." Some may recognise Mr Brooks from the 1997 Errol Morris documentary "Fast Cheap & Out of Control," named after one of his research papers.

"Fast, cheap and out of control. There may not be a place for humans in the future if we're really successful," Mr Brooks says to the camera in the documentary, which also portrays a man obsessed with mole rats, a topiary gardener and a retired lion tamer.

When asked if he still believes that, Mr Brooks laughs and says: "You can't expect me to stand by something I said during a long day of filming 20 years ago!"

Image source, Reuters
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Mr Brooks cites the Fukushima nuclear disaster as an instance where robots were used in a practical fashion

Looking ahead 20 years, Mr Brooks thinks care of the elderly and disaster response will be the biggest advances for robotics in society. He cites the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan often when discussing robots. After an earthquake damaged the nuclear power plant, PackBots were sent in to sift through debris and send back images to humans working at a safer distance.

"Companion robots weren't any use in Fukushima," Brooks says. "And elderly people don't want companion robots. The elderly want control of their lives. They want dignity and they want independence."

"They don't want cute robots - it's about doing real tasks to make their lives easier."

The Digital Disruptors is a series about the people and companies shaking up business with new technology.