CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Baxter stayed behind in the lobby of the M.I.T. Media Lab, diligently picking up miniature boxes of Junior Mints and teacup candles and putting them in a pumpkin-shaped plastic bucket, as most attendees of Technology Review's Emerging Technologies (EmTech) conference here filed into the main auditorium on Wednesday morning.
Don't feel bad for Baxter, though, it was simply performing the picking and placing operations it had been programmed to do. The crimson-sleeved robot had no idea that its maker, Rethink Robotics founder Rodney Brooks, would shortly take the stage to tout Baxter as a technology for fundamentally transforming the manufacturing industry.
Rethink Robotics introduced Baxter last month, but EmTech marked its coming out party, one of its first public appearances. Baxter isn't the biggest, strongest or most mobile robot. Instead, Baxter's specialty is to collaborate closely with humans on the factory floor. "You can hug Baxter," Brooks said. Indeed, the robot is designed to be safer to work with, easier to program and, at $22,000, much less expensive to own and operate than its industrial ancestors.
Baxter's cost is perhaps Rethink's biggest breakthrough, but another key feature is that workers train the robot hands-on. Literally. To start Baxter on a basic pick-and-place job, users can just grab its arms and take it through the motions. The robot's camera and a variety of other sensors observe this training so that it can repeat the task. Facial expressions on Baxter's head-mounted display screen allow workers to determine the robot's condition. If the bot is easily picking and packing, its digital eyes adopt a nonchalant look. Block an item that Baxter is trying to pick up or confuse the robot in some other way and the display presents a puzzled expression indicating a human may have to step in and assist.
Manufacturers have relied on robots for decades, largely to perform repetitive tasks that are easily automated. The reality, however, is humans actually perform many manufacturing processes because the tasks are too complicated for robots. So much for lights-out, fully automated manufacturing. It's still simpler and cheaper to employ a person to assemble a smart phone (or even screw in a single bolt) than it is to design, build and program a robot to do it.
Industrial robots—70 percent of which work in factories assembling and painting automobiles—typically are not safe for people to work around and are largely sequestered in cages, Brooks said Wednesday at EmTech. It's been this way for the past 50 years—robots haven't followed in the footsteps of the information technology (IT) revolution that saw computers shrink from the size of an entire room to fit in the palm of one's hand.
Brooks hopes this will appeal to the 300,000 small- and medium-sized U.S. manufacturers (those with fewer than 500 employees) whose operations haven't been robust enough so far to justify the cost of robots. Another target audience for Baxter is academia. Rethink is hoping that university robotics labs will welcome Baxter and push the technology further.
Baxter's future will owe a lot to the ambitions of its users, given the robot's limited capabilities. Rethink will make a software development kit for Baxter available early next year, a crucial step to opening up the bot to the programmers, robot enthusiasts and hackers who can expand the technology's repertoire beyond basic custodial duties.
Image courtesy of Larry Greenemeier/Scientific American