“Hard times offer ingenuity and innovation,” says Bill Gates.
I found Gates’ words so prophetic when I was reading Thomas Friedman’s article in New York Times the other day. It’s a success story of a group of innovators based in Boston.
Friedman was given a sneak peek into Rethink Robotics, the company that is developing a new generation of robots aimed at improving productivity in manufacturing environments. 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 Rodney Brooks, the founder of the company.
“Just as businesses had to completely rethink ways to use computers when the PC was first introduced, they will want to take advantage of opportunities created by this new class of robot,” says Brooks. The Australian-born former director of the MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the co-founder of iRobot, which invented the Roomba vacuum-cleaning robot says: “Our robot is low-cost, easily programmable, not fixed and not dangerous…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.”
Wow! What an incredible device!
Rethink Robotics products will reflect the company’s new vision of a much more broadly adopted automation approach that will do for manufacturing workers what the PC did for office workers—increase their productivity by giving them direct access to technological tools.
Visiting the company’s design workshop near Boston’s airport, a wonderstruck Friedman said: “I visited their workshop 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.” Amazing!
“If you see pictures of robots welding or painting in a factory,” Brooks told Friedman, “you will not see humans nearby because it is not safe being around swinging robot arms.” But, Rethink Robotics is safe.
The seeds of a potential revolution lie in the fact that Rethink’s product is cheap, easy-to-use. This soon-to-be released safe robot will be to industrial robots what the personal computer was to the mainframe computer, or the iPhone was to the traditional phone.
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 United States and China. “It is all made in America,” says Brooks, but by “the best talent” gathered “from around the world.”
Is it going to take away jobs?
“That’s not true. It doesn’t take away jobs. It will change how you do them. The way the PC did not get rid of secretaries but changed what they did,” says Brooks.
“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. …”
This is United States….the land that has given birth to Microsoft during the hard times of 1970s. So despite the talk of recession, slowing economy and joblessness, the brilliant minds are always at work in the US and America is here to stay.
Human ingenuity triumphs at the end of the day!