September 18, 2012

Meet Baxter, Your New Robotic Co-Worker

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

It was inevitable, really, that one day we´d start seeing robots pop up in expected and unexpected places. One could argue, of course, that robots have been helping us manufacture and produce many of our most beloved items for years, such as automobiles, computers and even blue jeans.

While these robots have helped to automate many of these processes, they´ve largely been autonomous and without any personality, much less a face to put with a name. One Massachusetts robotics company plans to change this when they introduce Baxter, the world´s first humanoid robot ready for work in a manufacturing environment next month.

While the initial asking price for one Baxter seems high at $25,000, the price tag is far less than paying an employee´s salary, not to mention insurance and other benefits.

Unlike Baxter´s larger, older factory ancestors, this robot is meant to work alongside other human workers with a “common sense behavior,” allowing the bot to work shoulder-to-hydraulic-shoulder on the line.

Another key difference between Baxter and the other robots of old: Baxter is truly humanoid, complete with an LCD face and a 360-degree set of cameras as a head.

Rethink, the proud parents of the blue-collar bot, say Baxter can use these sensors to detect when a human is close by, allowing him to also guide himself and work on his own.

"Robotics have been successful in designing robots capable of super-human speed and precision,” explained Rodney Brooks, CTO of Rethink Robotics, in a statement.

The difficulty, he said, is building a robot that can adapt and understand in the same way a human can.

"We believed that if we could cross that chasm with the manufacturing environment specifically in mind, we could offer new hope to the millions of American manufacturers who are looking for innovative ways to compete in our global economy," said Brooks.

When Baxter begins taking jobs in the manufacturing, offshore and production industries, he could be seen as the young kid on the block by his older counterparts. According to the International Federation of Robotics, there are 1.1 million robots working in factories across the world, 80% of which help to drive the auto industry.

Though Baxter will be dramatically cheaper than hiring a human laborer, humans will still play a vital role in teaching Baxter how to perform his duties. For instance, when working on an assembly line, Baxter´s human co-worker will have to guide Baxter´s arms and hands to train him how to work with the implements coming down the line. If Baxter happens to drop a tool or an important piece, he is smart enough to know that he can´t continue without it, keeping him from “going through the motions” as it were.

Baxter can even communicate via his LCD screen-face, displaying a “confused” expression on his “face” when he doesn´t understand a task.

"Our guiding vision was to create a robot that would break the mold in two distinct ways," said Rethink´s CEO Scott Eckert, saying his company wanted to create both hardware and software capable of growing and learning as it expands to other applications. Rethink says they´ll begin shipping an SDK with Baxter units as early as next year, giving companies the ability to write their own software for the bot.

Some companies have already placed their pre-orders for Baxter and should be receiving their units next month.

"It was important to us that we remain true to the vision of the company and Baxter is proof positive that you can manufacture a superior product cost-effectively with American manufacturing," said Eckert.

No word yet on whether Baxter will require union breaks.