take over more complex jobs on manufacturing lines, such as
operating machinery. Perhaps one day, it could also make a
mark on service industries. Picture Baxter flipping burgers,
tending cash registers, sorting files.
And Brooks hints at even more ambitious plans. He is aiming
at no less than a revolution in how work gets done, one that
would change the economics of labor. “This robot will just keep
on improving, and doing more and more,” he says.
meet Baxter in July, at Rethink’s offices in what the city of
Boston has taken to calling its Innovation District, a once-and to some extent still-gritty area outside of downtown,
on the wrong side of the charmless Fort Point Channel.
The site on which the offices are situated happens to be the
former location of the first electrified factory in Boston, once
seen as heralding the future of manufacturing. It’s a history
hardly lost on the Rethink team. Inside, the offices are a cross
between the usual high-tech swanky blandness and a busy workshop. The cubicles are punctuated with workbenches and shelving that are littered with all sorts of random-seeming odds and
ends, such as cereal boxes and automotive parts. (These are
items Baxter uses to practice on.) Also perched on some of the
surfaces is the occasional humanoid robot or parts thereof.
Baxter is something like a cartoonist’s vision of what the
which point I will guide Baxter’s arm to where I want it to
place the widget. After that, Baxter should be able to do all
that on its own, over and over again, as widgets parade by it
on a hypothetical conveyor belt, unfazed by variation in how
the widgets are positioned. Baxter should be able to stick the
widget in a box, put it in an electrical tester and sort it into
Pass and Fail piles, drive a screw into it—whatever’s needed,
as long as it’s a fairly simple task.
Brooks has made it clear to me that this demo is premature—it’s one of the first being given to the outside world, and
Baxter is still undergoing intense tweaking. And sure enough,
Baxter misbehaves at the start, having trouble with every step,
finally becoming sullen, or so it feels to me, though technically
it has merely become nonresponsive. An employee patiently
reboots Baxter, as one would a balky laptop or cell phone. The
second time around, everything goes pretty much as it’s supposed to. Baxter works.
But not like other machines. In particular, Baxter doesn’t—
and wasn’t intended to—move in the precise, sharp, angular
way normally associated with robots (and with those tiresome
people who imitate them). Instead, it seems a bit uncertain,
taking its time and struggling a bit to get it right. As it does so,
its screen-based face goes through a range of expressions,
finally settling into one of contentment when it hits its groove.
Working away without a problem
A human has approached
Having trouble finding an object
or otherwise completing a task
Given up trying to complete
a task; there’s a problem
top half of a friendly, uncomplicated, but hard-working
robot would look like. Robots can easily come off as either
creepy or goofy, but Baxter strikes a pleasant enough balance
between the humanoid and the machine, with a head consisting
of a computer screen displaying a line drawing of a face. The
particular robot in my demonstration is bolted to a pedestal
behind a workbench, which would be a fairly typical arrangement at customer sites.
In this demo, the idea is that I will teach Baxter to move a
random widget. I’ll grab one of Baxter’s arms, position it over
a widget, and with a click of a button mounted on the arm,
I’ll confirm to Baxter that this is the object I want it to be able
to recognize and pick up. Then, Baxter will pick up the wid-
get in the fingerlike grippers at the end of one of its arms, at
For an industrial robot, Baxter seems, well, laid back.