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(NECN: Peter Howe, Boston) As far as red-shirted revolutionaries go, this one's a sweetheart: "Baxter," startup Rethink Robotics' name for an anthropromorphic robot that can perform routine assembly-line and warehouse tasks at a fraction of the price of most industrial robots, and trained by line workers, not engineers.
The company, which emerged from "stealth mode" Tuesday, is the latest project of MIT robotics expert and iRobot co-founder Rodney "Rod" Brooks. Now 70 people, it's raised $62 million in venture capital from investors including Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos's private investment shop. It's based on the edge of South Boston's Innovation District on Wormwood Street.
As Brooks sums up the vision: "Let the robots do the dull, dumb repetitive stuff, and then let the people use their brains to be more productive.''
What makes Baxter so different: the $22,000-per-unit price (not including the base it sits on, which can be fixed or mobile) is a fraction of what most industrial robots cost, and the fact that unlike other robots that have to be fenced off from co-workers, Baxter has been built with all kinds of features to make it play nicely with human workers in a factory, production, or warehouse environment, including sensors that make Baxter back off the instant it comes near a person.
In a short demonstration, Brooks took about 90 seconds to program Baxter to pick up plastic "widgets" off a conveyor belt and place them in a specific spot, showing the machine what he wanted picked up, from where, and guiding its arm to the place he wanted the devices dropped off. To prove Baxter's courteous nature, he even stuck his head right in the path of Baxter's arm; Baxter stopped and he emerged unscathed.
Just as iRobot brought robotics into devices that can clean your floors and gutters at home, Rethink is all about pushing robotics technology into new places it's never been, with Brooks especially interested in Baxter becoming a way to bring back jobs making things to America from China, with factory workers upgrading themselves to robot masters.
"To me,'' Brooks said. "the right analogy is, 30 years ago only big companies had computers, mainframes, and ordinary people didn't touch them. Then the PC came along and ordinary people got to touch computers and use them. This robot is for small companies that can't afford the expensive industrial robot, and where their line workers are the ones who program it -- not specialists, consultants, big teams of engineers.''
Rethink is now telling prospective customers that over the course of 3 years, a Baxter would cost you the equivalent of $4 per hour of work, which most likely could be sorting or testing or moving parts or packing or unpacking boxes and crates. While the obvious question is whether it becomes a way to automate away American jobs, Brooks and his colleagues strongly doubt that, given Baxter's current level of functionality, and in fact, are motivated by precisely the opposite: They're hoping that as the devices are proven out and perfected in workplaces, businesses will come to find they can add $4-an-hour Baxters - overseen by $30- or $40-an-hour American workers, without the cost and hassle of producing things 9,000 miles away - to bring back from, say, China or Vietnam many kinds of repetitive manufacturing work.
"Baxter is made completely in the USA," including locations in Connecticut and New Hampshire, Brooks said. "I don't believe outsourcing to China is, in the long run, a sustainable policy. We can make things here. That's what this is all about."
With videographer Kevin Krisak