Innovation will enable US to fly in the face of recession
WHEN YOU hear the insane notion of “legitimate rape” being aired by a US Republican congressman – a member of the House science committee no less – it makes you wonder some days how the US 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 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 MIT 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.