Smarter Robots, With No Wage Demands

Rethink Robotics’ Baxter can learn any menial assembly-line task
Photographs by Joe Leavenworth for Bloomberg Businessweek

Measured against the hopes and horrors of science fiction, Baxter, a new manufacturing robot from Rethink Robotics, is a huge disappointment. Although it has two Olympic swimmer-length arms and a set of expressive digitally rendered eyes and eyebrows, Baxter is legless and speechless. It can’t hold a conversation, pass for a human, or rise up against its masters in apocalyptic rebellion. But Baxter’s creators are out to spark a different kind of revolution. They hope the robot, adept at the mindless repetitive tasks common on most assembly lines, can increase the productivity of U.S. manufacturers and help them retain business that would otherwise migrate overseas.

Boston-based Rethink is the brainchild of Rodney Brooks, a pioneering roboticist who has ushered robots from sci-fi stories into living rooms. Brooks, a former director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, is a co-founder of IRobot, the maker of the Roomba vacuum. Until his machines came along, the term robot meant devices with a narrow scope of jobs and a simple interface. The red and charcoal-gray Baxter, which goes on sale next month, is the result of nearly four years of work by Rethink, which recently emerged from stealth mode.

Rodney Brooks with Baxter
Photograph by Joe Leavenworth for Bloomberg Businessweek

With five cameras, a sonar sensor that detects motion 360 degrees around it, and enough intelligence to learn tasks within an hour, Baxter is designed to work safely alongside humans and do simple jobs such as picking items off a conveyor belt. It’s also cheap enough, at $22,000 a unit, so that the investment math works: If Baxter performs three years of eight-hour shifts, it’s the equivalent of labor at $4 an hour. “We are spending hundreds of billions of dollars doing this kind of work in China,” says Brooks, who serves as Rethink’s chief technical officer. “We want companies to spend that here, in a way that lets American workers be way more productive.”

Traditional assembly-line robots made by companies like ABB in Switzerland and Yaskawa Electric in Japan, which can cost more than $200,000 apiece, do a few things extremely well, such as painting and welding, but require carefully organized and controlled environments. Most wouldn’t know if a human wanders close by, so they are often isolated in cages away from employees. Baxter, though, sits on a gurney and can be set down safely just about anywhere on a factory floor. Its eyes are on a swiveling computer screen and greet any worker who approaches. To teach Baxter a job, a human simply grabs its arms, simulates the desired task, and presses a button to set the pattern.

Another idea behind Baxter is that it will be upgradable. The company plans to update Baxter’s software for free every few months, enabling more complex behaviors such as two-handed manipulation. Early next year, Rethink will also release a set of programming instructions so developers can come up with their own tasks and attachments for the machine.

The origins of Rethink Robotics stretch back to the 1990s. Brooks says he got an unwelcome taste of the realities of the global supply chain as the cost of shipping IRobot’s products overseas rose along with the price of oil. He also recalls visiting his native Australia and being surprised to find an ad for a Roomba knockoff made by a Chinese manufacturer that had likely skimmed the intellectual property from IRobot’s own contractors.

Brooks conceived Rethink, originally called Heartland Robotics, as an attempt to change the economics of manufacturing. Over the last four years, Rethink has raised $62 million from venture capital firms such as Charles River Ventures. IRobot also owns a small stake.

Recently, Rethink has been quietly testing Baxter with prospective customers. Vanguard Plastics has tried out the robot on such tasks as packing finished molds into a box. The Connecticut injection molding company plans to buy one this fall. “It allows our people to use their minds more than their hands, which is really what you want in your plant,” says Chris Budnick, Vanguard’s president.

Rethink has a long way to go before it can change the fundamental economics of global manufacturing. Baxter is designed to make U.S. workers more productive than their foreign rivals, but that’s not a huge problem. U.S. companies produce about $2 trillion worth of goods annually, vs. China’s $2.2 trillion, and they do it with a tenth of the manpower, says information services firm IHS. America’s manufacturing issues go beyond productivity. Companies turn to overseas manufacturers because they’re cheaper and nearer the rest of their supply chain. Baxter can’t solve that problem.

There’s also the existential fear that Baxter could replace U.S. workers. Rethink Chief Executive Officer Scott Eckert, who previously ran Internet strategy at Dell, compares Baxter to the arrival of the personal computer, and says it effectively turns workers from menial laborers into robot managers. He also says Baxter could help small and medium-size manufacturers such as Vanguard win more bids against Chinese rivals. “That keeps those companies and those jobs in the U.S. This is the customer set that has seen the least benefit from robotic technology so far,” he says.

For now, Brooks is just pleased to have an inaugural product heading to the market. One challenge along the way was naming the robot. The company had a contest among its 70 employees, settling on Baxter, an Old English name derived from baker, a hardworking and indispensable craftsman. Brooks says that’s exactly what Rethink’s new robot is meant to be, no more and no less. “If you make your robot look exactly like Albert Einstein, then the robot better be as smart as Einstein, or its user is going to feel cheated,” he says. “We have taken great care to only give authentic promises of what Baxter is capable of and to deliver on those promises.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.