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Robotics Companies Develop Workplace Assistants

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted September 19, 2012

Boston startup Rethink Robotics is betting on an increased robotic presence in ordinary workplaces sometime in the near future. Specifically, they envision regular human-robotic interchanges in contrast to the more isolated instances seen today.

Baxter, their first product, is encased in plastic and moves almost clumsily—by design. Rodney A. Brooks, founder of Rethink Robotics, has seen to it that Baxter differs from existing conceptions of robots by building in layers of safety protocols and radically lowering costs.

Rethink will initiate sales of Baxter from October at a retail price of $22,000.

The New York Times reports:

“It feels like a true Macintosh moment for the robot world,” said Tony Fadell, the former Apple executive who oversaw the development of the iPod and the iPhone.

Baxter can be “trained” (Rethink dislikes the term “programmed”) by simply being walked through whatever action pattern is desired. All the models feature prominent safety and interaction signals, and they are equipped with an emergency shutdown override. Initial applications will likely be in low-level assembly-type jobs.

However, that doesn’t mean existing employees will be laid off; rather, they will handle more specialized tasks that the robots can’t. And Rethink isn’t alone in its thinking; Danish firm Universal Robots is already developing a variety of robots, while teams at the Universities of California in San Diego and Washington are trying to develop robotic hands with ultra-pliable fingers.

The foundation of this new approach to robotics is called behavioral robotics, a notion Brooks pioneered for NASA in the 1990s. The idea will result in robots becoming like platforms (think Android and iOS), hence enhancing their modular nature and flexibility.

These are exciting times for robotics, and a new age is clearly gearing up.