Rodney Brooks

2023 Fellow

For the advancement of robotics and consideration of its implications for humanity

My talent is getting things to work that people think are many decades in the future. I say we can make them happen now.

— Rodney Brooks

Rodney Allen Brooks is an Australian computer scientist, AI pioneer, and designer of autonomous robots. He is recognized for his development and practical promotion of robotics and his writings and public talks on the implications of robotics for the future of humanity. A longtime MIT professor, Brooks has also founded several companies, including iRobot, which makes the legendary Roomba vacuum cleaner—the most widespread robot in history to date. His research is concerned with the engineering of intelligent robots and understanding human intelligence through building humanoid robots.

Brooks was born in 1954 in Adelaide, Australia. While attending Flinders University, where he received bachelor’s (1975) and master’s degrees (1978) in pure mathematics, Brooks was given access to the university’s mainframe computer. This experience was enough to convince Brooks to travel to the US to study with AI pioneer and CHM Fellow John McCarthy at Stanford University in California. Brooks chose a traditional AI problem for his doctoral dissertation (1981), which he subsequently expanded and published as Model-Based Computer Vision (1984). He held research positions at Carnegie Mellon University and MIT and a faculty position at Stanford before joining the faculty of MIT in 1984 as Panasonic Professor of Robotics.

From 1997 to 2003 and from 2003 to 2007, Brooks was, respectively, director of the Artificial Intelligence Lab and of the Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab. During these years, Brooks continued to advocate for a new approach to AI: bottom-up thinking based on action and behavior. This approach differed markedly from the more popular abstract computer model involving heavy computation of the robot’s “world.” With Brooks’ approach, simpler, insect-like robots could display surprisingly complex behaviors and his influential and accessible essays on the machines were collected in the 1999 book Cambrian Intelligence: The Early History of the New AI, an initial formulation of the behavior-based method.

Brooks and his students suggested designs for robots to explore Mars as well as for important tasks such as clearing unexploded ordnance. Brooks instituted a project of “raising” a robot “child” named Cog, who would learn from its interactions with people. Brooks’ writings cover a vast array of imaginative and thoughtful consequences of our lives with robots including artificial life, autonomous micro-robots, planetary exploration, and computer vision, an unusual blend of technical mastery and philosophy that is rarely seen today.

Brooks left iRobot in 2008 to found another robotics company, Heartland Robotics (later Rethink Robotics), to build robots for use in manufacturing; the company closed in 2018. In 2010, Brooks retired from MIT and is currently cofounder and chief technical officer of Robust.AI, founded in 2019.

Brooks is a member of the NAE, and a fellow of the AAAS, ACM, IEEE, and AAAI.

Photo by Christopher Michel. 


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