From the Marines to Carnegie Mellon, the DARPA Challenges, Three Mile Island, Bhopal, the Moon, Mars and things he still can’t talk about, the legendary Red Whittaker has taught, led, and inspired teams to do the impossible. Whether it’s dealing with the aftermath of a nuclear meltdown, cleaning up chemical leaks or repairing mine collapses, odds are Whittaker’s built a robot that can handle it. Hear from the father of Field Robotics, who has been a teacher and mentor to almost every CEO in the self-driving industry today, share his thoughts on leadership, invention, the future and his next frontier: outer space.

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Episode Transcript

Alex Roy
Welcome to the No Parking podcast. As always, I’m Alex Roy, here with my friend and co-host, Bryan Salesky.

Bryan Salesky
Hi, Alex.

Alex Roy
Brian, a few months ago I was picking a nickname for myself while play a video game and Team Red was the name I selected for my team. Someone from Pittsburgh pointed out that I should not do that because I’d not earned that.

Bryan Salesky
That’s a big mistake.

Alex Roy
Yeah, a big mistake. And then I was told I should look up Red Whittaker and I did. And then I was told that I should ask you about Red Whittaker. That is why our guest this week is Red Whittaker. Would you like to introduce him because I could not possibly do him justice.

Bryan Salesky
Well, Red is a university professor at Carnegie Mellon, founder of the Field Robotics Center and one of the driving forces behind some of the most impactful robotics system development efforts that have taken place over the last few decades. He is very well known for the work that they did with the Three Mile Island disaster. He’s one of the phone numbers that gets called when there is a disaster and they think robotics might be able to help. Red is a very interesting character and a lot of how we test and how we view systems development, getting out of the lab and into the field, robots that do real work, that’s front and center for Red Whittaker and we’ve learned a lot from him over the years.

Alex Roy
So his hashtag will be #notoys.

Bryan Salesky
Exactly.

Alex Roy
No toys.

Bryan Salesky
That’s right.

Alex Roy
Let’s just roll right into it, this is … it’s just an amazing, amazing episode.

Bryan Salesky
There’s so much territory we can cover and I almost don’t even know where to begin, but let’s just dive into current events at the minute. The moon, you’ve been pursuing it for a long time and some things just suddenly got real with Astrobotic, what’s going on?

Red Whittaker
I’ve been chasing the moon since I was nine years old and built a rocket ship. Along the way in my robotics world there were plenty of adventures, land, sea, air, underwater, underground, and for me the next step is space. Astrobotic just hit on $80 million to develop a lander that will fly in June of 2021, and with that rover to go forth and explore.

Bryan Salesky
Yeah, so the lander’s one of the more challenging pieces to develop in the overall chain of what it takes to put something on the moon. Can you say a little bit about that?

Red Whittaker
Everything comes down to landing. It’s a binary outcome, you either crash or you land. The technologies that accomplish that, particularly in a small spacecraft, all have to work. A lander is just a robot with rockets, and so it has all of the sensing, and planning, and controls, and the mechanics that we’re familiar with, but not with the advantages of GPS or communications, like we have down here.

Bryan Salesky
Yeah. And this is not a nice environment either, it’s not friendly to the electronics or to the mechanical systems. What do you have to solve to deal with that?

Red Whittaker
You deal with vacuum, hot, cold, radiation, high shaking and dynamics during the launch, and dust once you’re down on the surface, which is very aggressive in getting into things.

Bryan Salesky
Now, I’m curious about the electronic side of it for our software listeners. It is, as you were pointing out actually in some of our earlier conversations today, was it Curiosity? It was deployed with relatively … not the latest and greatest in terms of compute power. That’s sort of the nature of the game, right, because so much validation goes into it. Tell us how that works and what will actually be driving your lander?

Red Whittaker
The very high-end decade-long missions that cost billions invest heavily in ultra survivability reliability in the form of radiation hardened electronics. The standard of the day is a RAD750, which is an IBM chip from the 1990s. The small missions that I’m deploying will go with a militarized Jetson TX2, which is maybe 500 times the power for a fraction of the watts. And of course what comes with that is a higher level of survival risk, but the solar missions in the near term are 10 days, not 10 years, and we’re taking our chances.

Alex Roy
I’m curious, when one wants to send out a self-driving vehicle on earth, go out and collect maps, come back, run some simulation, go back and test against the simulation. You want to build a lunar lander. Does NASA hand you the data set for the environment? How do you test the lander before you go, what does that look like?

Red Whittaker
There’s plenty of testing that occurs, maybe too much of it has to be in sim because you never, never, never recreate the complete lunar landing environment. But that said there is component testing of every thruster, every electronic device, propulsion tanks, everything that’s in it is tested individually, and then by subsystem, and then the limitations on the actual spacecraft testing are such that you can’t ever get it dirty. So the whole thing gets dynamically shaken. The whole thing gets subjected to vacuum. The whole thing is subjected to solar heating and so on. So it’s everything short of the actual flight.

Bryan Salesky
Let’s pop up for a second and talk about sort of what’s the point, right? You said you’ve been dreaming about this since you were nine and there are some real important pursuits here, can you describe some of them?

Red Whittaker
Apollo was the pinnacle of human and technological achievement of its time and learned a great, great deal about lunar rocks, and dust, and material properties. It missed all together what’s recently discovered and matters today. The first is an abundance of water in the form of ice at both the poles. That ice can be converted to water, so you can drink it, oxygen, so you can breathe it. The oxygen and hydrogen can be combined into rocket fuel for supporting missions into deep space.

Bryan Salesky
That’s particularly important. That’s what allows you to get anywhere, right, is the ability to create and refuel on the moon or in space, and then now that becomes sort of the springboard for what’s next.

Red Whittaker
The adage is that the moon is the stepping stone to the solar system. The other incredible recent discovery is that the extensive cave system underlying the moon might be accessible through newly identified pits that are vertical holes descending into the depth of the moon. Those caves have been dreamed about for a hundred years in science fiction, but their particular use is the protection for human presence, protecting from the oven-hot heat of the surface, the cryogenic cold, the radiation exposure, and micro meteorites that can pierce suits and structures.

Bryan Salesky
Yeah. This is not a friendly environment by any stretch. The resources that we presume might be available on the moon, what sort of properties do you think we’re looking for that could help us on earth even?

Red Whittaker
Well the holy grail is the helium-3 that has that prospect of truly clean power, and where a small amount of it would power our planet and then that would be very advanced gathering and processing before that could become a possibility. And then any resource is a resource. The caves I spoke about are real estate, and even here on earth the value is location, location, location. They’re very unique, if they do actually access the caves. But any resource, from the water that I spoke about, and other chemicals that are in the ice, ammonia, to printing. So you can actually take the lunar dust and 3D print anything.

Red Whittaker
One of my favorites is the production of solar cells and solar arrays. Here on earth people are familiar with circuitry, and understand that what matters is silicon. That’s fundamentally fused sand, which you’ve got plenty on the moon. Here on earth, we go through these incredible high, high vacuum processes where we have the elaborative equipment, and one of my favorite great assets on the moon is the hard vacuum beyond the capacity of us to make it. You can actually print solar cells right onto the surface.

Bryan Salesky
That’s super energy efficient, I suppose.

Red Whittaker
Woo-hoo.

Bryan Salesky
Yeah.

Red Whittaker
Now, the others that you need for that are other layers that are there, and then you need to wire those little leads that come out of them, so those, you make them out of aluminum, many other metals, and when you wire one up, you continue to print, or cast, or form those in other ways. Now, the other is, where coincidentally chatting here in Pittsburgh, which is a town where some people think of it as being a steel town once upon a time, but the reality is you can get iron ore and the other things that go into steel anywhere. The real resource was coal, the energy. Now, on the moon is incredibly intense energy.

Red Whittaker
We have double sun power than we have here on earth because we don’t have the liability of an atmosphere. That combination of things are resources beyond what most people think about.

Bryan Salesky
To me this is absolutely fascinating, and it’s one of those things where, I hear on occasion from people who’d say, “Well, why are we investing in lunar exploration? Why are we investing in space?” It’s a tragedy, in my opinion, what happened to NASA over the years. It’s one of those things where I think people don’t understand that the pursuit, even never mind all of the benefits we just talked about, the pursuit of getting to the moon, there’s so many by-products that come out of that, that have benefited everyday life.

Bryan Salesky
There’s so many by-products that have come out of the space program that have benefited life, and some of things are talked about and known, but what are some … In your view, what is maybe the most important by-product that comes out of this pursuit of exploring unexplored terrain or unexplored lands? Whether it be in the space and beyond or even here on earth, what is that pursuit mean to you and what do we get out of it?

Red Whittaker
Humans are fundamentally explorers, whether you think about that as the pursuit of new knowledge, the creation of enterprise, what there is to discover on this planet and beyond. That pursuit on the high frontier is the big one for me in its own right. And then that prospect of the resources we’ve spoken about, is just a huge, huge prospect of return. And then ultimately that leap frog to the solar system and what there is yet to be done, discovered there is big. I think it’s really no different, whatever, than here on earth.

Red Whittaker
There was a time when great explorers went east by sailing west and bumped into us. There was a time when here on earth there were some pretty serious characters that chased the poles, so this idea of polar pursuit and initially robotically, and the discovery, it’s known to be there. The ice is known to be there, but now it has to be characterized and developed just like gas production here on earth. Humans will always pursue that highest mountaintop and greatest cave and all these enterprises and resources that may come of it.

Alex Roy
We have characters like Elon Musk, he’s not the first, there’s Jeff Bezos, say that we have to invest in space exploration because humanity has to find other places to live. There are people who dispute that, who think, well, earth is screwed. Is it inevitable that mankind will expand to other planets? Inevitable?

Red Whittaker
Throughout my life technical pursuits and ambitions I’ve never really gone so, so far beyond what I could actually achieve in part by my own hands and in part in my lifetime. Those myriad futures that lie before us just are too vast to know. The doomsday scenario is a great meteorite. Everybody knows the other ways that we may do ourselves and this planet in. Those are great, great implications with, in my view, low probabilities.

Alex Roy
If you go back in time, how old were you when the Apollo mission went up, ’69?

Red Whittaker
I’d take it earlier than that. I was nine when Sputnik flew. A big deal in my life, so.

Alex Roy
You were born in ’49?

Red Whittaker
’48.

Alex Roy
Okay.

Red Whittaker
Yeah. You got it. That’s when I built my first rocket. That was like a big, big, big deal. To be straight with it, I was maybe 21, and I didn’t get the first-hand view in part because I was at Parris Island with my face in the dirt in Marine training, but it was a big, big, big thing, big thing in my life.

Alex Roy
Did you volunteer to join the Marines?

Red Whittaker
Yes.

Alex Roy
At the time did you know that you would later study civil engineering and go into what you do today?

Red Whittaker
I knew that I would be an engineer, and I knew that I would be someone who’d see a future, create a future. At the time I wouldn’t have been aware that I’d be in what I do today.

Bryan Salesky
Was Three Mile Island sort of the turning point when you graduated that was like, “Okay, we have tools to help here, we need to go.” It was a calling of sorts.

Red Whittaker
Yup. Yup. I had the vision of intelligent machines at work in the world and that was in an era when there was absolutely no evidence for it and where robotics research was pretty much a little RC car attempting to autonomously go down the hall and turn right. The other part of it was the beginning of manipulation as it might pertain in manufacturing, and the whole idea or vision was maybe finding a black dot on a white piece of paper. A lot of it had to be made up. But that said, I was at that work and seeking the opportunity to really go big and develop and apply something that would change the world.

Red Whittaker
It was so clear to me when Three Mile Island accident occurred that robotics was that opportunity.

Bryan Salesky
It’s a clear win. From that point forward, I don’t know when dull, dirty, dangerous was … well, the 3 Ds were coined, but, I mean, it’s absolutely a naturally first opportunity for smart machines, right?

Red Whittaker
Well, it’s interesting that that was actually as phenomenally significant, that it was, as development and as a tool of the trade. It was castigated, impugned in some basic research circles as not being autonomous, not being smart enough. The important thing there was that then that set my course of action to produce an autonomous outdoor self-driving work machine within a few months.

Bryan Salesky
Those people must not have understood how deep the problem was to do real work in the real world, outside of the lab, as you said. Not in the hallway, not in your simulation, not in your research paper, but in the real world. To me this is what really distinguishes a lot of the work that was done in the Field Robotics Center. You’re coined as the father of field robotics, which frankly, I don’t know, when I first got into this field, I quite had an appreciation or understood, but I do now. Because I’ve seen enough of the world now and enough of the peer universities and labs to CMU, and I realize there’s something really special in CMU and in FRC in particular, the Field Robotics Center.

Bryan Salesky
There’s something really special there, and what’s special to me, and what really resonates with me, is there is a persistence, a grit, a work ethic. There’s a rawness about getting into the real world. It didn’t happen if you can’t prove it in the dirt. Tell us where that came from. It sounds like this is sort of where it started to come from, but this is really inspirational.

Red Whittaker
Yeah, you’re digging in. It actually, now that you’re mentioning it, I’d say sourced from this era of being in some circles viewed as being not the real deal and in the earliest going of robotics, there was an incredible culture, pundits and priests, who were very good at saying what it would be, what it’d become. Plenty of that couldn’t tie its own shoes, but was pretty good at saying-

Alex Roy
Selling shoes?

Bryan Salesky
I mean, it made for an interesting theory, but it wasn’t in the land of practice.

Red Whittaker
Here’s the thing, and it so mattered that the technology did the talking and did so in an expression in the world. That tenet is really what has stuck with the work over deep time, and that so, whether it is pushing it into nuclear, or mining, or farming, or transportation, or logistics, or space, there was almost a common denominator in going after those that that is the notion by those cultures that technology wouldn’t work. It would not be reliable. It would cost too much. Not my job, not my realm, not here. That’s another one where the technology just absolutely had to do the talking.

Red Whittaker
Now, it’s also maybe swung too far in the sense that so much of that body work isn’t recognized for how much fundamental technology and development was invention, creation, and implementation was required to do it. I think in all these things it matters to make it look like there was nothing to it. Of course there is, but, after the fact, part of infusing into a new realm is to deliver and then make it look like there was nothing to it.

Bryan Salesky
Yeah. I mean, I think as with all of these things, a lot of people, once you demonstrate something they don’t understand necessarily that there’s actually a long tail to commercialize these things. But to your point though, the mere demonstration should not be also underestimated or undervalued. There’s real underpinnings to that work that then serves as a foundation that drives innovation for decades afterwards, and so we shouldn’t short sell those demonstrations either. Going back to Field Robotics Center, right, and the founding of that, when was it founded?

Red Whittaker
1983.

Bryan Salesky
1983. So shortly after, in the scheme of things, shortly after the Three Mile Island.

Red Whittaker
Actually, people think of 1984, as they should, as the year of the great formative developments. The nuclear robot, the first driving machine, and the first autonomous digging machine.

Bryan Salesky
Sorry, Navlab had its beginnings in 1984, I believe.

Red Whittaker
The-

Bryan Salesky
Or was it … It was Terregator, right?

Red Whittaker
No, here’s the thing.

Bryan Salesky
Yeah.

Red Whittaker
People think of 1984 because it was the culmination of the nuclear work machine, the very first of the autonomous outdoor driving machines and the very first of the autonomous digging machines, all in one year from a little startup crowd.

Bryan Salesky
Right.

Red Whittaker
What they miss is that … I took the charter for developing the nuclear machine in 1983, in September, delivered in April. Pretty good burn.

Bryan Salesky
Sure is.

Red Whittaker
I then spoke the … what came of that and why it mattered so much to me to go after Terregator. I could see that outdoor actually had some big advantage over this interior research, in part because the computers at the time were pretty big to lug around and you could get more capability onto it. You could get more mobility, such that whatever the driving was would be mechanically forgiving. But the big resistance of that in the culture was, oh, just a wall of impossibility. “Oh, my gosh, Red, don’t you understand? There are seasons. Sometimes it looks like snow. Sometimes it looks like green.” There-

Alex Roy
Sometimes there’s actually four seasons.

Bryan Salesky
Sometimes there’s really bright sunlight.

Red Whittaker
And, “Oh, my gosh, there are leaves. Oh, what will happen if you encounter a curb?” These things, I mean, it just kept coming. And alternately so many of the things that didn’t work so well in the interior, like the sonar sensors of the day, which were reflective and didn’t work so well on glass and polished surfaces. The first time I took them into a coal mine with those natural surfaces, they just lit up like LIDAR.

Bryan Salesky
Exactly, yup. Yup. But there’s still-

Red Whittaker
All we did there was talk about the year, really. So it’s a short thing, so 1983 was the year. I actually coined the word field robotics a bit later. The lab was established in 1983 and the vision of the work was developed at that time, but I first called it the Construction Robotics Lab, which is the area I was working with in civil. Then delivered the nuclear robot and called it the Nuclear Robotics Lab, and then got the Terregator and called it the Mobile Robotics Lab. And then did the excavator and went back to the Construction Robotics Lab.

Red Whittaker
So instead of changing the name three times a year, I coined the word field robotics, and of course it stuck in its history, however there was a great reaction within the team and two people actually left.

Bryan Salesky
Really?

Red Whittaker
Oh. Here was the argument, “Red, we cannot call ourselves field robotics, someone might think that we’re working to automate farming and that’s not what we do.” But if you fast forward a couple of years and our research and early patenting of self-guided tractors, and the impact that’s had in the world, it just fits so fine under the whole envelope, so that’s a little of where it came from.

Bryan Salesky
As in all things, the work speaks for itself. The name maybe becomes less important over time, right? And people need to understand that. Those formative years where important though, going back to the doing real work in the real world. The formative years, that’s where that got cemented. You had a relentless push that if someone showed you a result, you wanted to see it in the real world. Show me that it actually works? Is that something that was ingrained in you, in your DNA somehow, or was that a more conscious thing?

Red Whittaker
As a fairly young teenager my first serious job was laying railroad track the old way, so I used to swing a hammer. I was good at it.

Bryan Salesky
Somehow I believe that.

Red Whittaker
I worked construction and that was part of the origin of my interest in civil. But along with that came the hands-on, how do you really work concrete, build bridges, lay pipe, guide excavation? From a very young kid I was building cars, and I mentioned my rocket going all the way back to nine years old. So that notion, not just knowing the tech or the how of the doing things, but having an eye for what things are worth doing, meant something. And then by experiencing these very galvanizing and formative projects, which had a tremendous influence on me because in the course of doing such things you get clear about the rate at which work has to occur, the pragmatics of getting it done, the idea that all that counts is what’s real.

Red Whittaker
That was maybe an atypical influence for an academic. A great deal of university research at the time, and there was no robotics research, I mean it just didn’t exist, it’s funded initiative things of that type, and certainly not near as we’re talking about. So Three Mile Island wasn’t somebody’s idea of blue blood basic research project, it was an owner that woke with a liability that exceeded net worth and was in trouble.

Bryan Salesky
Yeah, I mean this was an existential thing. This was … We needed this.

Red Whittaker
Well, if you fast forward to say the automation of the very first off-road road truck and the vision for automated mining, that was an incredible experience of working with Caterpillar, a premier company.

Bryan Salesky
It’s a great company.

Red Whittaker
Here you get real clear when you’re collaborating in that way, what they bring to the game and that what the university brings to the game was everything, because the whole future I could see for both construction and mining would be influenced incredibly by automation. I could bring that to the game. They are the ultimate in heavy yellow iron.

Bryan Salesky
They sure are. I’m a big fan of military history, to some extent science history as it relates. There have been some submarine accidents where submersibles had to go down, rescue operations.

Red Whittaker
So, I, for years and years, far too many years, in such situations, where for example Russian sailors might be trapped in a submarine and where we know about it because they are hammering on the walls every once in a while. I’d get the call and-

Bryan Salesky
Right, with Thresher or the Kursk.

Red Whittaker
Well, I’m not going to get into all of them. I mean, people-

Bryan Salesky
Quecreek.

Red Whittaker
Well, no, listen, I’m talking some serious … People don’t even recall. There’s one in Bhopal, India. This one just affected masses.

Alex Roy
The Union Carbide incident?

Red Whittaker
You know a lot. You know an awful lot. Listen, once you’re the only one on earth that’s doing that kind of thing, and these things occur-

Bryan Salesky
You’re the bat phone.

Red Whittaker
Well, and it is a weight to not be at the ready, because in these situation nobody’s interested in what you can do somewhere, someday, what matters is what you got ready to go. And so at the time I was early to formulate with coal mine accidents around the world, with these entrapments under sea, with situations like Bhopal, India, where the calls would come in that there was a first realm that I had not thought enough about, beyond all of the profiteering enterprise, which is, would be, and became rescue robotics. And there’s still not enough that we do for it.

Bryan Salesky
Yeah. It’s a hugely important field that’s still, even to this day, sort of underfunded, especially compared to some of the other pursuits that maybe I’m involved in. Are you still the first call?

Red Whittaker
No. No, no, no, no.

Bryan Salesky
No, it’s grown up since then.

Red Whittaker
If all were known, it’s just one of those many, many, many, many initiatives that no longer need the old man.

Alex Roy
The old man. What about, were you involved in the Glomar Explorer?

Red Whittaker
I was not. I was not.

Bryan Salesky
I have to ask, I’m sorry.

Red Whittaker
No, I get that. I get that.

Bryan Salesky
So, so many of these pursuits, whether it be lunar exploration, whether it be Three Mile Island, whether it be one of the first self-driving cars done, at least in the U.S., they were led and born out of very young people’s hands, students. You are known to be a master of inspiring, motivating, and also getting a heck of a lot of work out of your students. Tell us how this works? I think people don’t understand or appreciate that these are not grizzled veterans in some field, these are kids, but they’re capable. The collective spirit of some of the brightest kids in the world, when they come together, what they’re able to solve and do is pretty … it makes me tear up.

Red Whittaker
All the work and certainly work too often attributed to me is by the hands of youth and by incredible teams. My commitment to anybody who is aboard at any initiative with me is that they get more out of it than what they put into it, and that’s a blood agreement. The how isn’t different for anyone. Some of the ingredients that I look for for myself, my projects, and such teams is high purpose. To keep the expression of that very simple, we all know too many corporate mission statements that go on for a page. I don’t think I’ve ever had one more than five words.

Alex Roy
What are those five words? Just give an example.

Red Whittaker
Clean up the accident.

Bryan Salesky
Keep it simple.

Red Whittaker
Yeah.

Bryan Salesky
I love it. Yes.

Red Whittaker
Win the race.

Bryan Salesky
Well, that was it, yeah, 2006, that was my life.

Alex Roy
You’re the best.

Bryan Salesky
That’s all I remember.

Alex Roy
I’m on team Red now.

Red Whittaker
Here’s the thing. It’s a battle cry.

Bryan Salesky
Clarity.

Red Whittaker
It is a battle cry and the other, people would see something in it for themselves. And of course that’s so different for each individual in each setting, so some might be intrigued to pursue the technology. Some might be inspired by what that high purpose is about. Some might never been a part of anything that big. Some might want the degree. And some might be thinking ahead to what they would do with it by way of enterprise or life beyond that team. The next is the integrity to do what we say. It’s amazing how many things in life sign up for something and don’t come through, or it’s a little sleazy. Kids see through that and I see through that. So together we’re grounded in the goal and time.

Bryan Salesky
If I were to start over again with a new career, let’s say a few years from now, I don’t know, 10 years from now, it would be to harness the power of students and to help make them more effective in whatever it is they’re trying to pursue in the field of what I know the best. Whether it be robotics, automation, whatever it might be. What we do is we solve really challenging problems. We put constraints of ourselves as a result of wanting to do real meaningful work in the world, there’s real constraints that you have to deal with, whether it’s temperatures, whether it be power-

Alex Roy
People saying, “Impossible. No.”

Bryan Salesky
People saying, “Impossible. No.” Exactly! There’s a lot of barriers, right? What I want people to understand is that you can actually, there’s this brick wall in sports, right, how you power through the brick wall. I think the same thing exists in this field. You either have it or you don’t in some ways, but I want those that think they don’t have it to realize they do and that they can power through that brick wall and actually make ground with a little. When we talk about Three Mile Island, that wasn’t a lot of money. When we talk about any of these initiatives that you’ve pursued in your life, it wasn’t … in most cases it wasn’t some huge infusion of money that solved this, this was a coalition of the willing that rallied around that battle cry to make it happen. Right?

Bryan Salesky
What do we say to some kid that’s out there that’s listening to this, saying, “Man, this is just so hard, I don’t know if I can get through it. I don’t have the resources. I don’t have this. I don’t have that?” What do you say to them to sort of power through it and make progress?

Red Whittaker
Well, of course a lot of the communications that approach me are exactly the ones that you’re referring to. People, young people who ask, “How do I get started? Could I be a part of that? What does it take to get on your team?” And they’re from around the world. Many of them are from other continents that are oceans away. I start by telling them, start swimming.

Bryan Salesky
Right.

Red Whittaker
Get here.

Bryan Salesky
You throw them in the deep end and see what can happen, I mean that’s part of the fun. I mean, let’s frame it in a different way. Everybody that works on these teams is expected to be a leader, so let’s strip leadership down into its rawest, most emotional elements. What is it? What is leadership?

Red Whittaker
Having others see that which is in it for them and drawing forth all that they are and can be to fulfill that.

Bryan Salesky
And to serve that higher mission.

Red Whittaker
It’s certainly all about people getting where they’re getting while the initiative gets where it’s going.

Alex Roy
Did you learn that in the military? Did that evolve over time?

Red Whittaker
Almost everything that I really know I picked up either from teaching or doing. I’ve had the fortune to evolve as a leader by being a bad leader that kept working on it.

Bryan Salesky
But you always told us that there’s a real power in the team. I’ll never forget, Red took me aside years ago after I gave some, I don’t know, some talk to whatever it was for, I don’t know. It wasn’t anything that was significant or important, but Red still listened to whatever it is I had to say, and he took me aside, and he said, “Bryan, when you talk, I want you to understand something and never forget this.” He said, “You can use the word, I, and that’s fine, that’s something you can do. That’s something you will do, are doing. You can use, we. That’s more powerful. That means you’ve got people with you doing something. But it’s most powerful to say you have the team, the team is doing this. That says that everyone is rallied around that one thing and is going to make it happen.”

Bryan Salesky
I never forget that.

Alex Roy
Did you read the book, Autonomy by Lawrence Burns, are you familiar with it?

Red Whittaker
I did.

Alex Roy
From that book one might infer, that you were very hard on your people, and yet today almost everyone in that book has gone on to do something extraordinary. Would you have done it any differently, going back, the way you led those teams?

Red Whittaker
Not a moment of it, ever. It’s true that people went the distance, but one of the greatest, greatest, greatest things for anyone in life is to choose openly that which they will do and then commit themselves wholly into it. Wholly. When you do that it almost doesn’t matter how it turns out, you win. When you’re half in and half out or giving a fraction of what you got, it’s just … never works out.

Alex Roy
I watched another interview with you. You’re sitting in your house and you say you never had children, but in effect the machines you’ve built are your children. Do I remember that correctly?

Red Whittaker
My children are all those who I worked with in these adventures and adventures to come. One of the very special things about a university in the world is that it is a fountain of youth. They just keep coming.

Bryan Salesky
Whether you like it or not, and they’re green.

Red Whittaker
I think of my robots as children, but with any good family it’s important not to pick favorites amongst them. I will also say that there’s a little bit of the creator in any intelligent system. And so I reflect on that element in all robots that have come before, and much of that that will be in the moon robots that are still in front of me.

Bryan Salesky
I think we should just end it right there. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a beautiful thought actually.

Alex Roy
I wish we didn’t have to stop, but we just end it right there.

Alex Roy
Bryan, have you ever seen the … You’ve seen The Godfather, right?

Bryan Salesky
Of course.

Alex Roy
Citizen Kane?

Bryan Salesky
Multiple times.

Alex Roy
Apocalypse Now?

Bryan Salesky
Absolutely, one of my favorites.

Alex Roy
Because listening to you and Red speak, and having some general understanding of the terminology and the history, it was like watching those three movies at high speed. I grasped, I inferred a lot and I learned a lot, but, boy, it made me wish I devoted more of my life to working in this field.

Bryan Salesky
And you could sense the passion from Red.

Alex Roy
Yeah.

Bryan Salesky
Right? This is, I think, one of the more raw forms of Red that’s been put on tape here, in that he was sharing with us what drives him, how he motivates teams, his view of the importance of the field, not just his work, but he’s speaking broadly for the field. We respect him a ton.

Alex Roy
Yeah. Listening to him, there was something, I don’t want to say other worldly, but something almost like out of history. That there was a time in a late 19th century, really the dawn of like America in its purest best form, like the inventor class.

Bryan Salesky
Yes.

Alex Roy
When inventors and entrepreneurs weren’t conflated as one type of thing, that he …

Bryan Salesky
You walk away with the sense that they don’t make them like they used to.

Alex Roy
Yeah, they don’t. And that he’s like above politics, his part of history even like moment to moment.

Bryan Salesky
Absolutely.

Alex Roy
Yeah, I really admired that. All right. Well, that was an emotional episode. If you would like to learn more about the No Parking podcast, check us out online at www.noparkingpodcast.com. You can … Well, you should please follow us on Twitter @NoParkingPod. Bryan, still no social?

Bryan Salesky
No social, but if you want to learn more about some of the cool robotics that’s going on at Carnegie Mellon, check out https://www.ri.cmu.edu/.

Alex Roy
Yeah. I’m still just like emotionally drained from that whole episode. If you could have seen his face as he told his stories, he’s really connected and loves the people who’ve been on his teams, you among them, and the things you guys have built. If you would like to be a guest on our show or have a topic you think we should cover, please contact us at guests@noparkingpodcast.com. Thanks for organizing that, Bryan, that was amazing.

Bryan Salesky
Thank you.

Alex Roy
We’ll see you next week.