February 12, 2015      

Joanne Pransky, Associate Editor, Industrial Robot, has served up for our review and consideration yet another interview with a robotics pioneer: Rodney Brooks, founder, chairman and chief technical officer of Rethink Robotics. Brooks also is a founder, board member and former CTO (1991-2008) of iRobot

The interview has been made available for free to RBR readers until March 12, 2015. Just follow this link.

Here’s a quick preview:

Pransky: Of all the projects you have been involved with, which do you look back on as having been the most fun, and why?

Brooks: The most fun project was Genghis, a six-legged robot. We built it in the summer of 1988, and Colin Angle, who’s the CEO of iRobot Corporation, was a young kid whom I had just hired around April of 1988. For the summer, he built the hardware and I developed all the software and we worked together for 12 weeks. I wasn’t teaching and that’s all we did. We got Genghis to walk, and it was just great. This project was the start of a lifelong involvement with Colin.

Pransky: Can you describe how being a university professor compares with working in private industry?

Brooks: It took me a while to realize that private industry is different. The way everything is set up at universities is that the professor is the one who’s going to sign your thesis, and you better work for that professor. However, I did not give my students thesis topics. I’d say, “Come back with ten good ideas and let’s talk, then we’ll choose which direction to pursue,” because I wanted them to be creative. Sometimes, I really had to work hard because they didn’t want to deviate from the “party line.” It was easier to get them working in a direction that I was interested in, because they were sort of dependent on me. In industry, people respond more with: “That’s a stupid idea. I’m not going to think about that. I can quit and get a job down the road, so I’m going to do it my way.” And it’s very different. My academic friends would say, “Oh, it must be a great industry; you can tell people what to do.” No, you can’t. You gain respect just by your position in academia; in a company, you have to earn respect from every individual, one person at a time.

Pransky: What do you think is the single most important thing we can be doing for our PhDs to prepare them for the commercial world?

Brooks: The hardest thing to convert a PhD over to, is the difference between how “delightful” their technology is and what a customer wants to do in his life. In academia, it’s the technology, the science or idea which is valued; PhDs don’t realize that’s not what’s valued by the customer. It’s valued by the customer if something works, does the job, is cheaper and better, and it doesn’t matter what the technology is to them.

Click here to read the entire interview.

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