The Singularity Is Here

Your New Robot Coworker Will Have a Nine-Foot Wingspan, But More Common Sense

Congratulations, Rethink Robotics! You just wrote a sitcom pitch.
screen shot 2012 09 18 at 4 11 36 pm Your New Robot Coworker Will Have a Nine Foot Wingspan, But More Common Sense

(Photo: Rethink Robotics)

The robotics industry’s much-anticipated crossover moment–from the R&D lab to everyday life–wasn’t supposed to happen until later this year, but it appears Rethink Robotics couldn’t wait to share the good news. Today, the Boston-based startup introduced the world to Baxter: a friendly-eyed, two-armed robot encased in Iron Man-red plastic and designed to “collaborate with human workers.”

Relax, coffee shop-bound knowledge workers. Baxter was designed solely for manufacturing applications. Your jobs are safe for now, economic realities not withstanding. 

Baxter represents a huge leap forward, both in terms of the machine’s low cost ($22,000 per robot) and its adaptability. “It’s so easy to use, non-technical workers can train it,” the company promises in a promotional video [below]. Mortal coworkers can train the machine to say, pick up objects, by manually moving the robot’s arm, teaching it how to do simple, repetitive tasks. “Factories in the U.S. can compete with low-cost offshore labor,” the video’s narrator proudly proclaims.

“It feels like a true Macintosh moment for the robot world,” former Apple exec Tony Fadell, who oversaw the creation of the iPod and iPhone told the Times, comparing it to the computer industry in the 1980s. Back then falling PC prices and the ability to use a Mac without any programming knowledge helped usher in the personal computing era.

Rethink Robotics, which raised a $30 million series C round in June from Sigma Partners and Draper Fisher Jurvetson, has been testing Baxter out on the assembly lines at small companies. Employers insist Baxter enables workers assigned menial tasks to move toward more highly-skilled labor, including training the robots, whose work may change frequently.

“Our folks loved it and they felt very comfortable with it,” said Vanguard Plastics president Chris Budnick, who is definitely not a Cylon plant, nope, no way.

Baxter’s most reassuring quality might be its baked-in emphasis on reasonable behavior, such as making sure there’s an object in its hand before it releases it. The company’s video situates Baxter in a  “revolutionary new category: robots with common sense!” It’s probably more than you can say for the half-asleep drone in the cubicle next to you.

Follow Nitasha Tiku on Twitter or via RSS. ntiku@observer.com