Science Magazine

Human Robots Could Revolutionize Manufacturing

Posted on the 19 September 2012 by Ningauble @AliAksoz


Robots, can be useful in a lot of practical, everyday situations.  Although they can be taught to cook, do the laundry, and perform other specialised tasks, the long-awaited general-purpose automaton has remained tantalisingly out of reach. It looks like that’s about to change, with today’s unveiling of Baxter, an all-purpose robot built by the Boston-based firm Rethink Robotics. Baxter won’t be coming to my kitchen you any time soon – according to the company’s release, it is designed to excel at fast, repetitive labor in manufacturing jobs. And at $22,000 a pop, I can’t afford one in my house anyway. But it’s precisely that price point that Rethink is promotes heavily in its public relations material. Baxter is actually pretty cheap for a piece of industrial equipment, for as far as Rethink Robotics goes, which will make it an attractive addition to manufacturing firms who are looking for reliable pairs of hands to work on assembly lines and perform menial tasks.

What this means for the future of the human factory worker is unclear. Rethink rosily states that Baxter will “free human operators to focus on more value-added jobs”, but it’s bound to be a thorny issue if and when robots start showing up on assembly lines en masse. Be that as it may, Baxter has been explicitly designed to work in a human’s world. With a pair of dextrous arms, a 360-degree sonar sensor and a force-sensing system that allows it to avoid harmful contact with humans, it is meant to sidle up next to people and toil safely alongside them.

Perhaps most significantly, Rethink claims Baxter units can be re-tasked in a matter of minutes by people with no knowledge of software programming or robotics. That would mean the company has achieved a significant breakthrough in robotics software that allows a wide range of generalisation. It could be a start of becoming ubiquitous in our everyday lives.


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