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.

The Rethink design team includes Bruce Blumberg, the product manager of the Apple LaserWriter – as well as 75 other experts from Russia, Georgia, Venezuela, Egypt, Australia, India, Israel, Portugal, Britain, Sri Lanka, the US and China. “It is all made in America,” says Brooks, but by “the best talent” gathered “from around the world”.

This is the company of the future. Forget about “outsourcing”. In today’s hyperconnected world, there is no “in” and no “out”. There’s only “good, better and best” and if you don’t assemble the best team you can from everywhere, your competitor will.

The Rethink robot will be unveiled in weeks. I was just given a sneak peek – on the condition that I did not mention its “disruptive” price point and other features.

“Just as the PC did not replace workers but empowered them to do many new things,” argues Brooks, the same will happen with the Rethink robot. “Companies will become even more competitive, and we will be able to keep more jobs here . . . The minute you say ‘robots’ people say: ‘It’s going to take away jobs. But that is not true. It doesn’t take away jobs. It will change how you do them.”

Actually, the robots will eliminate jobs, just as the PC did, but they will be lower-skilled ones. I watched a Rethink robot being tested at the Nypro plastics factory in Clinton, Massachusetts. A single worker was operating a big moulding machine that occasionally spewed out too many widgets. The robot was brought in to handle overflow. “We want the robot to be the extension of the worker, not the replacement of the worker,” said Michael McGee, Nypro’s director of technology.

This is the march of progress. It eliminates bad jobs and empowers good, but demands more skill and creativity and enables fewer people to do more things. We went through the same shift when our agricultural economy was replaced by the industrial economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Therefore, what this US presidential election should be about is how we spawn thousands of Rethinks that create new industries, new jobs and productivity tools. Alas, it isn’t. – (New York Times)

Lucy Kellaway is away

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