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Baxter: The Robot That Could Change Manufacturing in America

Rethink Robotics talks up its robot, which is being pitched as a savior for manufacturing.

Wouldn’t life be grand if we could get robots to do all of our drudgework? This dream of automation through robotics is a long-standing one in American culture. In the 1960s, for example, “The Jetsons” cartoon showed Rosie, the robot maid, attending to the family’s whims and needs. In fact, she was even considered a part of the family.

With the Baxter robot from Rethink Robotics, we could be one step closer to realizing that robot-human productivity fantasy.

Rodney Brooks, a former MIT professor and the founder and chief technology officer of Rethink Robotics, presented Baxter to the world at the Media Lab as part of MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference.

The key difference between Baxter and previous robots used for manufacturing is that Baxter is approachable and doesn’t need to be kept separate from human workers. In fact, Brooks talked up the possibility of Baxter taking care of grandma in the future, if the robot is rolled out into eldercare facilities.

“Our story is manufacturing, but there will be new software every two to three months with new capabilities. Researchers will find places to use it that we wouldn’t have guessed,” Brooks said in a GigaOM article.

Friendliness is reflected in every detail of the robot. Baxter has humanlike eyes that pop up on the screen “face”; numerous cameras; and artificial intelligence, which gives it “common sense,” the company says.

Most importantly, Baxter is easy to train. The robot doesn’t require a sophisticated technician to get up to speed, and coworkers on the floor can train and retrain Baxter as they go about their day.

In an official promotion for the robot, Rethink Robotics demonstrates the potential of Baxter in a manufacturing environment. Watch the video, below.

Companies that use Baxter can expect to see increased productivity: The robot doesn’t tire like a human does, and humans are freed up to do more complex, important tasks that can’t be automated.

“People get really bored doing the same tasks again and again, and they start to make errors. So let the robots do the dull, mindless tasks,” Brooks said in an interview with Reuters. “But you have to have it so that it's easy to set up what that task is, and tell the robot what it is, so that you don't need to bring in a team of engineers every time you want to change your process.”

If Baxter takes off, putting more robots on factory lines could help the U.S. regain a dominant position in the manufacturing industry.

We’ve already gotten used to automated teller machines. From there, Baxter doesn’t seem like much of a leap, right?

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Nov 07 2012 Spice IT

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