Robotics
Disruptive Thinker: Rodney Brooks

Anyone who pays close attention to the game of baseball is likely familiar with Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s manager whose radical approach to evaluating player stats, using a system of empirical analysis called sabermetrics, fundamentally changed baseball economics. Billy Beane’s story of disrupting a time-honored approach to managing baseball is the subject of the upcoming film, MoneyBall.

When we started thinking about fundamental disruptions in the realm of technology, especially maker-related technology, things like open source, and Linux, and Arduino, and heck, the maker movement itself, immediately came up. In thinking about disruptive individuals, one person leapt to mind for me, someone who’s had a huge, sea-changing impact on the science of robotics, Rodney Brooks.


Brooks became something of an outcast in the field of robotics when, in 1985, at a robotics research conference in France, he presented a robot that was far more successful at navigating a space than any other attempts to date. And the bot basically had no brains, no central processing unit. It did no reasoning, made no maps of its world, it simply wandered around its environment and reacted directly to feedback from sensors (sonar) — it used the world as its model, “sense-act,” rather than “sense-plan-act,” an unthinkable concept at the time. His paper on what he had done was rejected by peer reviewers, but bravely published anyway by the Robotics and Automation journal (and has subsequently become one of the hallmark papers in robotics research).

Many things have grown out of these early days of Brooks’ unconventional ideas and research. In addition to this approach, now known as behavior-based robotics, social robotics seeks to use observations of social interactions between humans and robots to create robots that humans want to interact with, by use of human-mimicked expressions, sounds, movements, etc. Rodney Brooks and the company he later co-founded, iRobot, also pretty much jumpstarted the domestic robot market with the creation of the Roomba vacuum, a very simple device that uses behavior-based/sense-act concepts in its design. And it was Brooks’ approach to robotics that inspired engineer Mark Tilden who went on the develop BEAM robotics and the WowWee line of robotic toys (the other hugely successful home robotics product).

Rodney Brooks is one classic example of a disruptive thinker in a field of technology. He questions basic assumptions, is not afraid to take big risks, and is willing to be ridiculed for outrageous ideas. Who are some other such contemporary thinkers that come to mind for you? Tell us in the comments.

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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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