(Photo courtesy Flickr user jurvetson)Today is day two of EmTech, MIT's Emerging Technologies Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is a three-day conference that showcases emerging technologies that have the best potential for commercial impact.
One such emerging technology unveiled at the conference was Baxter the Robot, a breakthrough in robotic design from Rethink Robotics. Rethink founder Rodney Brooks believes that Baxter will fundamentally transform the use of robotics in the manufacturing industry.
Not only does Baxter cost about half as much as his predecessors, but he is designed to be safer to work with, more easily programmed, and by working with people on the manufacturing floor, he is capable of hands-on learning of new processes. Simply guide Baxter's arms through the motions of the task he is to perform, and his camera and other sensors will record the entire process, allowing him to repeat it.
Furthermore, since Baxter has a 'face', human workers can use his 'expression' to tell how he is doing on the job. If everything is fine and he is just moving, sorting and packing items, his expression is calm and neutral. If something goes wrong, like an object he is trying to pick up is blocked, the expression will change so that he appears confused, so a human worker can step in to help. His expression can also show surprise, and even sadness.
Baxter has limited capabilities at the moment, but with a software development kit being released next year, the company is hopeful that new innovations will come from the user-end, as companies push the boundaries of those capabilities.
Brooks sees the lower cost and ease of programming making Baxter particularly appealing to smaller manufacturing companies. According to Scientific American, Brooks says that around 70 per cent of industrial robots these days are still used in assembling and painting cars, kept inside cages because they are not safe for humans to work around.
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That may sound like a public service message for robot freedoms, but with a robot like Baxter, who is designed to be human-friendly and use human-like social cues to let people know his status, a little anthropomorphism is understandable. Along those lines, one part of the robot design I find a little unnerving is that I can easily envision that expression of his turning angry. We can only hope the designers introduced Baxter to the works of Isaac Asimov.
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