Meet Baxter — Your New Co-worker

Stephen DeAngelis

September 28, 2012

In yesterday’s post (Robots and the Future of Manufacturing), I discussed the impact that robots are having (and will likely to have) on jobs and manufacturing in the future. As I noted in that post, if Rethink Robotics Inc., has its way, a future in which humans and machines are working side-by-side will arrive much quicker than many people anticipate. John Markoff reports that the company is betting “that robots in the future will work directly with humans in the workplace.” [“A Robot With a Reassuring Touch,” New York Times, 18 September 2012] The company was founded in 2008 by Rodney A. Brooks, whom John Markoff calls a “legendary roboticist.” Brooks founded iRobot Corp. and helped launch the Roomba home-vacuuming robot a decade ago. Rethink Robotics’ first product is a robot named Baxter that will go on sale in October at a cost of $22,000. Tony Fadell, a former Apple executive who oversaw the development of the iPod and the iPhone, told Markoff that the release of Baxter “feels like a true Macintosh moment for the robot world.” That’s a pretty bold statement.

You might be wondering why Baxter is such big news. After all, there have been robots working in
Baxter-1 manufacturing plants for decades. Markoff indicates that Baxter “is the clearest evidence yet that robotics is more than a laboratory curiosity or a tool only for large companies with vast amounts of capital.” He continues:

“[Rethink Robotics] is betting it can broaden the market for robots by selling an inexpensive machine that can collaborate with human workers, the way the computer industry took off in the 1980s when the prices of PCs fell sharply and people without programming experience could start using them right out of the box. … Baxter will come equipped with a library of simple tasks, or behaviors — for example, a ‘common sense’ capability to recognize it must have an object in its hand before it can move and release it. Although it will be possible to program Baxter, the Rethink designers avoid the term. Instead they talk about ‘training by demonstration.’ For example, to pick up an object and move it, a human will instruct the robot by physically moving its arm and making it grab the object. The robot’s redundant layers of safety mechanisms include a crown of sonar sensors ringing its head that automatically slows its movements whenever a human approaches. Its computer-screen face turns red to let workers know that it is aware of their presence.”

Markoff reports that each Baxter is equipped with “a large red ‘e-stop’ button, causing immediate shutdown, even though Dr. Brooks says it is about as necessary as the Locomotive Acts, the 19th-century British laws requiring that early automobiles be preceded by a walker waving a red flag.” The stop button is undoubtedly a reassurance for those who have grown up watching Terminator movies. Brooks told Markoff that the stop button will eventually be eliminated as workers learn to trust their new co-workers. What kind of work will Baxter be doing? Markoff indicates that the robot has been tested “at a handful of small companies around the country where manufacturing and assembly involve repetitive tasks.” Although a $22,000 robot may sound expensive, Rethink Robots “estimates that the robots can work for the equivalent of about $4 an hour.” And, of course, no healthcare or pension plan will be needed for them.

Having robots replace humans during a time of high unemployment may not sound like a good idea, but the addition of robots doesn’t necessarily mean the loss of jobs. For example, Markoff spoke to “Chris Budnick, president of Vanguard Plastics, a 30-person company in Southington, Conn., that makes custom-molded components.” Budnick told Markoff that “employees whose menial tasks are done by robots are not being laid off … but assigned to jobs that require higher-level skills — including training the robots to work on manufacturing lines with short production runs where the tasks change frequently.” Budnick went on to state, “Our folks loved [Baxter] and they felt very comfortable with it. Even the older folks didn’t perceive it as a threat.”

James R. Hagerty reports that “Baxter eliminates the need to hire specialist technicians.” [“Baxter Robot Heads to Work,” Wall Street Journal, 18 September 2012] Brooks told Hagerty that “most workers would be able to learn to operate Baxter within half an hour.” That’s why the company believes that Baxter will appeal to “small and midsize manufacturers that previously haven’t been able to afford robots and lacked the expertise to program them.” Hagerty reiterates that “Baxter comes preprogrammed to do certain basic tasks, such as sorting objects.” He continues:

“Buyers then need to adjust it to meet their precise needs, such as grasping certain shapes and moving objects in certain directions. That can be done without additional programming. If companies want Baxter to go through more complicated motions, they will be able to do additional programming for it. Baxter is designed so that workers can ‘teach’ it to do tasks, the company said. For instance, a worker could guide the robot’s arms to an object. Cameras embedded in the wrists would then determine how to grasp the object. The robot nods when instructions are clear; a puzzled look appears on its computer-screen face when they aren’t.”

Brooks told Hagerty that giving Baxter humanoid features makes it easier for the robot to fit in with a human workforce. It will also make it easier to adapt the robot for other applications, such as “health care and elder care.” Like other new technologies, Baxter is likely to be used in ways that company doesn’t now imagine. “Given the low price and ease of use,” Brooks told Hagerty, “people are going to try stuff out.” Ben Coxworth notes, “[Baxter] costs about half as much as most of the least expensive industrial robots currently on the market.” [“Baxter industrial robot aims at bringing automation to smaller manufacturers,” Gizmag, 18 September 2012] Coxworth also notes, “Owners will be able to expand the capabilities of their robots with regular software updates. Some of these updates will come courtesy of a development kit, which will allow people in the robotics community to develop new software.”

Markoff and Hagerty both note that Rethink Robotics is not the only company delving into field. Markoff reports that “Universal Robots, a Danish firm, has introduced a robot arm that does not need to be put in a glass cage — though the system requires a skilled programmer to operate.” He also noted that “scientists at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Washington have built several prototype hands with pliable fingers that can move as quickly as the humans’. The research group has set up collaborative arrangements with the Mexican factories, known as maquiladoras where they will be able to test their new robots.” In addition to Universal Robots, Hagerty notes that Japan’s Yaskawa Electric is also “in the market for small, nimble manufacturing robots.” He also reports that “big makers of heavy-duty industrial robots, such as Japan’s Fanuc Corp. and ABB Ltd. of Switzerland, also are developing smaller models.” Jason Falconer reports, “Toyota has unveiled a new assistant robot designed to help the disabled live more independently. Called the Human Support Robot (HSR), it represents the latest initiative in Toyota’s Partner Robot program and is intended to help out around the home by fetching things, opening curtains, and picking up objects that have fallen to the floor.” [“Toyota unveils helpful Human Support Robot,” Gizmag, 22 September 2012]

David Bourne, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University, told Markoff, “The big hot button in the robotics industry is to get people and robots to work together. The big push is to make robots safe for people to work around.” Markoff concludes, “The next generation of robots will increasingly function as assistants to human workers, freeing them for functions like planning, design and troubleshooting.” Your next co-worker may not be much on chit-chat, but it could relieve you of doing some of the tasks you like least.