Robots on the Brain

We've been talking about robots in this forum a bit lately, so here's another glimpse at one of the robots that's been in the spotlight. At Automate 2013, I found the Boston-based Rethink Robotics exhibit, which featured Baxter, the company's newly introduced two-arm somewhat-human-looking — the HMI sports big blue eyes that follow you around — robot that needs no special integration or programming. Baxter was a featured player in the 60 Minutes piece that aired January 13 and upset, perhaps more than it should have, many in the robot biz who felt it slammed the robot industry as being a jobs-killer.

Baxter was championed by company chairman and CTO Rodney Brooks, a former MIT professor who invented iRobots' Roomba, the robot vacuum cleaner that dogs love to bite.

Alex Goodwin, the company's director of product management, demonstrated Baxter's capabilities, which feature a easy-teach procedure for getting the robot to, in this case, find a object on a moving conveyor, pick it up and place or stack it somewhere else. You train it by manually moving it through the required motions. 

It's aimed at repetitive, mundane tasks, the types of tasks that could help re-shore jobs. The robots could take the mundane, while real people take the more-skilled jobs that accompany them back. That's theory, anyway.

Goodwin pointed to its applicability to eventually do precise, high-quality tasks that humans struggle with. They currently offer only two end of arm tools, an electric parallel gripper and a vacuum cup gripper, but Goodwin says they know they have to roll out more tool variety in due time.

High-quality work wasn't what a number of people who watched the demo were after. Many of them, by their comments, made it pretty clear that they were out to cut headcount, and they had little even anything nice to say about their factory workers.

Therein lies the conflict about Good Robot, Bad Robot. More about that another time.

Senior Digital Editor Katherine Bonfante made mention of Baxter in an earlier post. She provided a link to Baxter's coming-out video, if you want to see him firsthand.

Joe Feeley is editor in chief for Control Design and Industrial Networking. Email him at jfeeley@putman.net or check out his Google+ profile.