Sep. 20, 2012 at 4:19 PM ET
The robots that fill factories and put together cars are dangerous, difficult to operate and out of date, says Rodney Brooks, cofounder of iRobot and now Rethink Robotics. He's building a better one — one that can work with and be operated by normal humans.
Brooks studied and taught robotics and artificial intelligence for many years at MIT. He and some colleagues eventually founded iRobot, creators of the popular Roomba vacuum robot, and also maker of many military and industrial devices. His new company, Rethink Robotics, aims to revolutionize the industrial robots that work in factories around the world. Rethink and Brooks are profiled in a recent article at MIT's Technology Review.
Brooks points out that the robots that assist workers are generally just not very worker-friendly. They can't be reprogrammed except by specialists, they're constructed for single tasks and they are often dangerous to be around. For instance, many have cages around them for safety purpose since they will operate regardless of human presence — such as someone's hand in their work area.
He decided to build a robot that was the opposite of all this, and the result, still experimental but already promising, is called "Baxter." It's meant not to be a heavy-duty device for superhuman tasks, but rather a helper for the average line worker. It stands about 6 feet tall, has two flexible arms with grippers and is topped by a face, displayed on an LCD screen.
One might question the relevance of a face on a robot. But it's not just there to make Baxter look friendly. It's functional, with the eyes looking toward where the robot is going to be working, or otherwise indicating how it is working.
Its powerful arms also have a human touch — literally. Not only can they sense obstacles and accommodate them, but they can be easily moved around by hand. In fact, Baxter can be trained to do new actions just by moving its arms to the correct position and choosing an action. This way, any worker can make the robot useful to themselves or adjust its actions to suit a new environment.
Perhaps most importantly, Baxter fits roughly into a human-sized space and can perform common tasks that once were too trivial for automation — tasks like adding instruction manuals to boxes, now done by poorly paid workers. For an estimated cost of $22,000, a tireless and efficient worker can do the job instead.
Naturally, the objection arises that automation like this eliminates jobs. But Brooks points out that a robot like Baxter makes human workers more efficient and more valuable, not less. And while automation does inevitably replace some workers, that's true of many advances in technology that are a net benefit: many appliances, tools and Internet services used to be humans as well. Remember travel agents?
Brooks isn't sure what Baxter or its descendants will be used for, but he thinks that the empowerment of the average worker will be not just a benefit but a revolution:
I think we're going to see people take this robot, program it to do stuff that we never thought of, never imagined. Out of that will come some new applications that we didn't even consider. And then it gets really exciting.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.