Roboticist Rodney A. Brooks with Baxter. Photo: Evan McGlinn/The New York
When you think of industrial robots, you probably think of big hulking
machines that move with such speed and accuracy that they’re actually
quite dangerous. In fact, such machines in today’s big factories are separated
from humans by glass shields because anyone unfortunate enough to get
in the way would be flattened.
But not this new bot. Meet Baxter, the brainchild of roboticist Rodney
A. Brooks of Rethink Robotics, who are designed to be human-friendly.
Well, you can argue that anything that can work for an equivalent of $4
and hour and takes a job away from human isn’t technicaly human-friendly,
but we’re getting ahead of the story.
John Markoff of The New York Times introduces us to the robot that could
change manufacturing (again):
If you grab the hand of a two-armed robot named Baxter, it will turn
its head and a pair of cartoon eyes — displayed on a tablet-size
computer-screen “face” — will peer at you with interest.
The sensation that Baxter conveys is not creepy, but benign, perhaps
even disarmingly friendly. And that is intentional.
Baxter, the first product of Rethink Robotics, an ambitious start-up
company in a revived manufacturing district here, is a significant bet
that robots in the future will work directly with humans in the workplace.
That is a marked shift from today’s machines, which are kept
safely isolated from humans, either inside glass cages or behind laser-controlled
“light curtains,” because they move with Terminator-like
speed and accuracy and could flatten any human they encountered.
By contrast, Baxter, which comes encased in plastic and has a nine-foot
“wingspan,” is relatively slow and imprecise in the way
it moves. And it has an elaborate array of safety mechanisms and sensors
to protect the human workers it assists.