Dear Commons Community,
A week ago I posted on the improvements being in the field of industrial robots (see Race Against the Machine…). It presented scenarios of companies such as Phillips Electronics that employ hundreds of workers on assembly lines. Tom Friedman in his column today, presents another look at robots but not the large industrial types but smaller more personal machines that can be programmed by the average person to perform very specific tasks either at work or in the home. He tells of:
”…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, most important, do multiple tasks for small manufacturers, who could not afford big traditional robots, thus speeding innovation and enabling more manufacturing in America.”
Rethink’s founder, Rodney Brooks, the Australian-born former director of the M.I.T. Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the co-founder of iRobot, which invented the Roomba vacuum-cleaning robot commented that 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 but:
“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.”
“This is the march of progress. It eliminates bad jobs, empowers good jobs, but always demands more skill and creativity and always enables fewer people to do more things. We went through the same megashift when our agricultural economy was replaced by the industrial economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Therefore, what this election should be about is how we spawn thousands of Rethinks that create new industries, new jobs and productivity tools. Alas, it isn’t. So I’m just grateful these folks here in Boston didn’t get the word.”