TED2013: 'Kind, Friendly' Robot Gets Factory Job

Elaine Radford

Too often, a modernized plant full of robots means that factory workers are out of a job. Get ready for Baxter -- the "kind" and "friendly face" of robotics, according to Lindsey Kratochwill reporting from the TED2013 conference yesterday for Fast Company. The colorful artificial humanoid is intended to work with humans, instead of replacing them.

The whimsically designed robot, which looked more like a toy than a serious working device, was presented by Rethink Robotics founder Rodney Brooks. In his talk, Brooks claimed that most factory robots are "dangerous" and that they've displaced "normal people" from technology. Baxter's sensors allow him to be trained by a human without accidentally hurting anyone, since the device can detect nearby people in time to avoid running into them.

Bill Bregar at Plastics News noted that the robot also has sensors in the eyes, allowing it to turn and look at any humans who approach. Rodon Group LLC "hired" Baxter to work in a toy factory "stacking sections of Super Mario racetracks." The robot doesn't just give you a friendly look when you walk onto the factory floor. It can actually imitate and respond to human actions, allowing workers to easily train it by example.

Lowell Allen, senior vice president of manufacturing at Rodon was enthusiastic when he spoke to Begar about the newly hired robot:

"The nice thing about Baxter, he's kind of a collaborative robot. All of our servo-robots require guarding because they're coming to this point, whether your head's in the way or not. Where Baxter, you put your hand or your head in the way of the tool path and it senses your presence and backs off."

So the robot will likely promote worker safety, but will it really protect jobs? At TED2013, Brooks insisted that we shouldn't fear robots. His fear is that "we won't have enough robots," not that they'll overrun the market with another source of cheap labor.

The Rethink Robotics site invites you to ask for a quote if you want to hire the robot, but Fast Company estimated the cost at about $22,000. Another hint from Plastic News that Baxter might work cheap is the fact that Rodon's motto is: "We Beat China Pricing."

According to the United States Census Bureau, the median family income surpassed $60,000 a year by the year 2000 and has held roughly steady up to 2009, the last year for which they had placed the data online. You can do the math yourself, but this reporter suspects that, friendly or not, Baxter is still going to work cheaper than the humans who train him.

Heck, the robots may even be taking the fun stuff for themselves. Dan Evon reported last year on a robot who went Gangnam style. Dusten Carlson noted that robot cars have been approved to take to the open highways of Nevada.

What do you think about the TED2013 robot? Good for safety, or bad for jobs?