Rethink Robotics, founded by former MIT faculty and CSAIL (Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) director Rodney Brooks, who also invented the Roomba, has developed a robot named Baxter designed to perform various manufacturing duties. Baxter, the first two-armed robot designed for such tasks, may be in the process of revolutionizing the way humans use robots in manufacturing, largely because Rethink Robotics doesn’t intend for Baxter to replace human workers.
Baxter went on the market a year ago and costs $25,000 a pop. That might sound like a lot, but some of the tasks he performs require a number of human employees, and some of those tasks are pretty awful — they involve enough dust and dirt that human workers would have to wear masks, and the jobs are also pretty darn boring. Baxter also can work for long stretches — I’m talking 2,000 hours straight, which is about three months of labor. That’s definitely cheaper than hiring humans to do the same amount of work, which is a plus for the companies that invest in Baxter, though not necessarily for the workers, no matter how dirty and dull the work might be.
But Brooks is quick to dispel the notion of Baxter stealing jobs. “Our customers are not about replacing workers,” he says. “They are about increasing their productivity.” By having machines do the dirty work, factories will hopefully become better places for humans to work. Brooks want to revolutionize robots’ roles in the workplace. He believes that instead of hurting the economy, robot workers can help it by making the U.S. a cheaper and more efficient place to produce goods, rather than outsourcing the work overseas.
Brooks knows a thing or two about outsourcing work overseas. In addition to inventing the Roomba, he co-founded iRobot, and both of them were made in China. But it got increasingly difficult and expensive to find manufacturing workers there, so he started rethinking that strategy and in 2008 started working on the robot that would later become the prototype for Baxter, collaborating with U.S. manufacturers along the way.
Only a few hundred Baxters have been sold so far, and Brooks is urging manufacturers to reconsider the utility of such a robot. Rodon, one of the companies that bought a Baxter, has also hired six new human employees in the last year, and says that some of the workers who used to do the labor Baxter now does oversee the robot. Brooks isn’t the only person voicing optimism about the jobs of the future — namely, by predicting that humans will still have some.