Meet Baxter, Factory Worker of the Future

By Ashley P. Taylor | September 18, 2012 3:51 pm


Today, Rethink Robotics, a Boston-based start-up run by famous roboticist Rodney Brooks, has unveiled a manufacturing robot that can safely interact with humans, is easily programmable, and at $22,000 is pretty inexpensive, as industrial robots go. Brooks thinks that the robot, Baxter, which goes on sale in October, could revolutionize manufacturing by creating a new source of inexpensive factory labor.

Industrial robots are fairly common in today’s factories. Technology Review reports that there are 1.1 million robots worldwide. But current models, such as those in the automotive industry, are kept behind glass walls and cages to protect their human coworkers. Baxter, in contrast, is meant to work safely with humans. It senses a person’s approach and slows down. It has communicative eyes that look where it’s going and foretell its next moves. Whereas other robots can take a day to program, factory workers can “train” Baxter by moving its arms and pushing a few buttons.

Rethink has been testing the robot at small manufacturing companies around the country, to positive reviews. Baxter, which could work for the equivalent of $4 an hour, isn’t designed to replace human workers wholesale. “The robot can’t do the full job of any one person, but it can do the simple cases of the simple tasks,” Brooks told IEEE Spectrum. That frees human workers up to tackle the more complex tasks, right alongside the new robot coworker in their midst.

Image courtesy of Rethink Robotics

  • Jockaira

    I welcome our new robotic underlords. They will probably be used extensively for tasks that usually sap the will-to-work of ordinary humans.

    Baxter sounds like Flexible Frank from the Door Into Summer.

  • Ben

    So…no more exporting of jobs…just eliminating them altogether. Of course, as usual, the resulting profits won’t go to those displaced workers (Romney’s shiftless, dependent, irresponsible 47%) but to the owners, the “enterprising” 1%, whose money just seems to reproduce itself without any social costs…the magic of capitalism!

  • Woody Tanaka

    Yet another step in the 1% putting the screws to working people. Time to start taxing these people into the poor house.

  • Bensabio

    So…no more exporting of jobs…just eliminating them altogether. Of course, as usual, the resulting profits won’t go to the displaced workers (those shiftless, dependent, irresponsible 47%) but to the owners, the “enterprising” 1%, whose money just seems to reproduce itself without any social costs…the magic of capitalism!

  • AJ

    First of all, the jobs that are being replaced by robots are low-paying unskilled labor. On the flip side, industrial robots are creating the need for more skilled technicians and matainance personnel to operate, maintain, and repair them. In essence, you are replacing a lot of unskilled low paying jobs with a few higher paying skilled jobs. Personally, if I were unemployed, I would rather see 10 openings for automation technicians than 100 opens for unskilled factory workers. In addition, factories who are adding automated processes are creating new jobs at the companies that develop, build, and install the robots. These jobs are typically higher paying jobs as well. The only ones who are suffering are the ones who won’t invest the time or effort to educate themselves or learn a skill. Did you know that despite high unemployement, many companies are unable to fill opening for skilled positions because there are not enough people out there with the skills to fill them? There is plenty of opportunity for those who are willing to learn.

    Second, adding automation is not about making more profit, it’s about staying competitive, keeping your costs down and not losing customers. In other words, it’s about being able to sell your product for a LOWER price. Factories that have the proper automation will have much less overhead, meaning less cost per part, meaning that they will be able to offer their product for a lower price. Factories that do not automate will be underbid on contracts by their competitors that do. In the end, the consumer wins, because they can buy their widgets for less, but only if they’re not one of those poor saps who is out of a job because they have no skills.

  • MrsRobinson

    Bad timing for a machine that will take desperately needed jobs. I’m sure someone up top will give funding to make them handle more complex tasks…. >.<

  • Jenk

    As much as I would like to be thrilled at the thought of this friendly, playschool-looking robot I have to agree with all of the above posters. Money already reproduces itself in any society in which the loaning of money at interest is acceptable. If I recall Jesus thought it a sin but those pesky Jews back in the way back when must have been doing so well christianity had to amend its principles. Now it seems the owners of the modes of production can inexpensively replicate the operators of such things, alleviating the need to worry over hospitable working conditions, health care, or the 8-hour workday. What then, of the displaced proletariat?

  • Tim


    How many of you would take a $4 an hour job? I couldn’t even get a craigslist handyman to come install the $9 ceiling fixture I bought the other day and i was offering $30. The job was too small and it was not worth their time. How many of you “displaced proletariet” think we should destroy all of the nation’s tractors so we can employ more people to plow our corn fields by hand for pennies a day? That would solve the unemployent problem, wouldn’t it? Perhaps you’d rather sit in front of your lap top and complain about the 1% while you sip your diet soda, purchased no doubt with either a “loan” from your mother or your trusty ebt card, than go out and get a job.

    I’m with Romney. I’m sick of your complaining. If someone won’t hire you to build a chair, perhaps you should just build a chair and sell it on etsy or ebay or craigslist. If someone won’t hire you to install lighting fixtures full time with benefits and a pension, perhaps you should go install a lighting fixture for someone like me who only makes $45k a year, but would rather spend my days off with my family than crawling around in the attic.

    I’m not the 1%, but I’m sick of hearing you people whine about how progress is going to make the proletariet suffer while you’re munching on Doritos in your parent’s basement.

  • Ringo

    [Yet another step in the 1% putting the screws to working people.]

    Woody Tanaka So negative.
    The robots price is decreasing $22,00 or less, in time robots will become an inexpensive commodity like the microwave, cell phone, PC etc.. There is nothing to stop you from getting in the market. Or buying the commodity priced robots and programming to build say; transmissions, electronic components, blenders, yo-yo’s, lawn maintenance most anything marketable.

  • Bensabio

    Money doesn’t really reproduce itself. Profit (“surplus value”) results from the expropriation of the labor (=life) of hired workers. Jesus may have judged, but Marx understood the dynamics: capitalism is theft.

  • Matt

    Wow, you marxists really are pretty incredible in your logic. Employees don’t own a company thus employees are not entitled to company profits. Employees are hired for defined wages and if they don’t think they’re getting treated fairly they have the freedom to go somewhere else. If any of you were business owners you’d understand that as opposed to wanting a handout and being all to happy to run a business into the ground with unrealistic demands.

    So I guess the world should just stop all forward movement in technology and science because it may cause some displacement of workers right? I write ‘displacement’ because that is what it is. Someone has to make the robots in the first place. People will be required to engineer, design, source, market, sell, and maintain the machines.

    The marxist left and union mentality is a fallacy of utopia that has always resulted in dyspotian societies. Just because you are too lazy to accept reality that your skillset (in the case of these robots that skill is categorized as “unskilled labor”) is no longer needed and that you should go learn something new to better yourself you want to cry like a baby and act like a victim so that government will step in to give you a handout. I guess the government should have subsidized the factories making and developing camera film and banned digital camera technology to protect the workers right?

  • AJ

    As much as I dislike Romney, I have to agree with Tim and Matt on this one. There are lots of jobs out there, but people are too lazy to learn the skills necessary to fill them. So those jobs remain unfilled while the unemployment rate remains high. It would be nice if we still had the option to earn a decent income without having any real skills, but that’s just not the reality of the American job market anymore.

    Also, I work in a town that was hit hard by the recession, yet my plant loses 2 to 3% of it’s workforce every week on average, due to people quitting. Our turnover is so high that human resources has to work overtime on weekends making hiring calls. I guess those “much needed” jobs aren’t that important when they only pay $10/hour. And we wonder why they’re being replaced by robots?

    Another point: in 14 years of working in automated/semi-automated manufacturing plants, I have never seen anyone lose their job to a robot. Typically, manufacturers add robots to their processes as a means to increase their output while keeping their headcount the same. In the event that they do cut their headcount, they generally do it through attrition….which, as I pointed out in my previous paragraph, is rather easy.

  • william02138

    A factory’s benefit to society is the products it produces, not the workers it employs. For example, Ford supplies society with cars — a certain number of cars for some total sum. How they divvy their revenue between workers, suppliers and shareholders is of secondary importance. Personally I’d prefer more goes to shareholders, i.e. it’s profit, because that means there’s room for the price of a car to go down next year.

    Efficiency makes society richer as a whole. If it takes fewer workers to build cars or whatever, that’s more workers available to do other stuff — like build schools and hospitals, design apps, or mow my lawn. For the same number of workers, getting cars plus apps is better than just getting cars.

    As a side note, it’s funny reading the marxist/whatever comments. Several complaints that robots will put people out of work (which is an understandable short-term concern for those individuals), but then Bensabio complains that capitalists steal workers lives by employing them… so I guess employing robots instead of workers must make this marxist happy.

  • Michael Kelly

    As usual, you are all half correct. Yes, I run businesses and start them so I am speaking from experience. Capitalism is a political system, not an economic system. Capitalism always strives for monopoly, not competitive markets. Capital is in competition with both labor and customers in a zero sum game. You can say the same thing about labor and consumers. Essentially, we have created a society based on zero sum games. In contrast with this, the essence of civilization is the creation and enforcement of positive sum games. As a society forgets this, it declines. The obvious fact that you have lost or perhaps never even were taught how to reason together should tell you where our society is headed.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar