There have been so many futuristic movies, cartoons and books that depict our future selves working with robots. Some of them, like The Jetsons, depict a workplace filled with robots and where a human worker, George, is only responsible for pressing a button over and over. Others, like The Matrix, depict worlds where robots have become self-aware and are enemies humanity.
So far, robotics hasn't reached the point of sentience. So we don't have to worry about robot overlords just yet. However, automation has had a huge impact on the modern workforce and is a fact of modern life. From self-serve ticketing kiosks in airports to self checkouts at grocery and department stores, technology has become a big part of how work gets done in today's world.
Until now, the use of robots in manufacturing has been limited to large, industrial machines. Although they perform a valuable function, they aren't flexible enough to replace actual workers. Because they require a huge investment and aren't able to deal with even slight changes in work flow, these manufacturing robots aren't a good choice for completing repetitive tasks. They present significant safety hazards and are required to be separated from the human workforce by cages or safety glass. Because of this, robotics hasn't been a viable option for most small manufacturers or warehouses.
Now, that is all changing. Meet Baxter, a new robot with common sense. Baxter is a low-cost robot that has the potential to change the face of manufacturing. Take a look at this video of him in action.
Created by Rethink Robotics, a Boston-based robotics company, Baxter is six feet tall and weighs 300 pounds. Instead of a head, Baxter has a screen that is surprisingly expressive. The screen has eyes and a mouth, allowing workers to get immediate feedback from Baxter. When he is working, his eyes look down at his task. When he makes a mistake, the screen changes to a frown. In fact, his screen is so expressive, workers can even know the precise moment that Baxter “sees” them, because his screen changes colors and he looks up. Not only is he user-friendly, Baxter is easy for workers to program and train to complete other tasks.
As if that wasn't enough, Baxter is also a very smart robot. Unlike traditional industrial robots, Baxter can be trained to do almost any task and doesn't require any additional safety measures. He was designed to work side-by-side with human workers and even has a feature that makes him slow down when a person enters his work space, allowing them to interrupt his work or teach him something new. He comes complete with enough intelligent programming that he can cope with changes to his work environment, which is a huge plus. For example, in a warehouse, a robot that pulls items off of a shelf is helpful, but if the item is not in the exact location, the robot will simply stand there and pull at thin air. Baxter, on the other hand, is able to adapt to these changes in circumstance.
The creators of Baxter, Rethink Robotics, are marketing him as a solution to outsourcing work to Asia. Because the robot costs only $22,000 and doesn't require benefits, it would be possible for companies to be competitive - without having to ship their operations off shore. The thought is that by making small manufacturers more efficient, the United States and Europe would be able to be more competitive, taking the edge away from countries that offer low-cost human labor.
In fact, Baxter is already working at Vanguard Plastics. According to the company, the people who work with him have no problem training him to complete various tasks, even though his primary duty is to take parts from one conveyor and place them on a table.
As you can imagine, there is some fear that this type of robotic worker could take away more jobs than it creates. However, Rodney Brooks, Baxter's designer and the creator of such robotic inventions as the Roomba vacuum cleaner, says that Baxter is designed to work beside a human employee, doing jobs to make the worker more efficient, rather than replacing them entirely.
So, is this the new face of work? According to the International Federation of Robotics, there are an estimated 1.1 million robots in the workforce today. Although a large part of them work in automotive manufacturing, that could change.
What do you think about this new robotic technology? Please share your thoughts in the comments.