Robotics
Maker Birthdays: Rodney Brooks
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Rodney Brooks (born December 30, 1954, in Adelaide, Australia) has had an impact on robotics and AI matched by few. And there is probably no one who’s had a bigger impact on viable commercial robotics. In the 1970s, when everybody else was obsessed with complex AI-driven, map-building robots, Brooks shocked the AI community by creating bug-brained walking robots that had little computational power and built no maps of their world. They were solely sense-act. This approach led to behavior-based robotics and influenced other bottom-up robotic design approaches, such as Mark Tilden’s BEAM robotics. And these simple bottom-up bot architectures gave birth to such commercial successes as Brooks’ own iRobot and the Roomba line and WowWee’s/Tilden’s Robosapiens.

Brooks’ unconventional approach to solving design problems can also be seen in what could be dubbed the “Brooks Design Heuristic.” It basically involves figuring out, in a design problem, what are the assumptions that are so taken for granted that they’ve become invisible to those attempting to solve the problem. Then explore those. For instance, in trying to find collision-free paths for industrial robots, everyone was focusing on the “stuff,” the things that could possibly be collided with. Brooks decided to focus on where the stuff wasn’t. This turned out to be much easier to design collision-free for.

Brooks currently serves as Panasonic Professor of Robotics at MIT. He is also the CTO and boardmember of iRobot Corp.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

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