the hands-on robotics tinkering of his early career. Brooks
began toying with ideas for making robots more useful.
That, in a sense, is what all roboticists do. But Brooks has
always had a more down-to-earth idea of what useful means.
In the mid-1980s, when robotics was struggling to come up
with complex software programs to mimic human intelligence,
Brooks electrified the field with simple, insectlike crawling
robots created with bare-bones programming. His machines
excelled at real-world tasks, like getting around an office without bumping into things, and were relatively inexpensive.
Brooks became a clear leader in the field and drew all sorts
of funding for experimental robots. But what he really wanted
to do was see robots become integrated into everyday life, and
that meant starting a business. His first was aimed at producing advanced toy robots that would cost just $100, leading him
to tour Asian factories to understand the art of making things
cheaply. The company he co-founded in 1990, iRobot, eventually ended up abandoning toys for robotic vacuum cleaners,
scoring big with the Roomba’s release in 2002. “When I started
my career, there were a few hundred mobile robots in the
world,” he says. “iRobot made more than a million robots last
year.” The company’s annual sales now top $465 million.
Brooks left iRobot in 2008, but the success gave him the
first and perhaps most important of a series of what he calls
maxims that guide him at Rethink, and with which he plies
his employees in lieu of actually telling them what to do. (“I
don’t manage,” he says. “I have no reports, and I don’t want
any.”) That first maxim: Get something out that’s so laden
with breakthrough capabilities at such a low price that the
competition will be crushed before it exists. “There are competitors to Roomba, but even today, they don’t work as well
as our first one did, and they cost more,” he says.
Vacuuming proved a sweet spot in the previously nonexis-
tent mass-robotics market, and Brooks was determined to find
another. Having succeeded in the home, he turned his atten-
tion to robots for businesses. Though there wasn’t much need
for robots in offices, factories were another matter. Industrial
robots have long been handling heavy-duty chores such as
welding and spray painting for big automotive companies, but
those can cost $100,000 or more. And then the real expense
kicks in: They have to be carefully set up and programmed by
experts to rapidly perform actions to precisions of one-hun-
dredth of an inch, over and over again, without any variation.
Assembly lines have to be built around them. And they have to
be operated in caged areas away from workers to avoid crush-
ing someone’s skull in the blink of an eye.
etting to Baxter was a journey. First, there was that
lone, cranelike arm, an appealingly simple approach,
and one that followed another of Brooks’s maxims:
Robots should not be humanoid just for the sake of
making them look like humans. Doing so creates an aura of
“inauthenticity” about the machine, he says, much like putting
racing stripes on a Toyota Yaris. But the crane arm didn’t seem
very exciting. Besides, there were already companies making
BY THE NUMBERS
Baxter is cheaper and more quickly deployed than are traditional robots. In a decade,
it might be able to tackle tens of millions of manufacturing and service jobs.
How much it costs
$22,000, all in
TYPICAL INDUSTRIAL ROBOT:
or more in programming costs
8 0 | INC. | OctOBeR 2012
How long it takes
to get running
to unpack and set up,
plus five minutes to
train on the first job
TYPICAL INDUS TRIAL ROBOT:
How many jobs Baxter could
potentially replace in the U.S.