Baxter Meets World: Rod Brooks on What Rethink Robotics Is Learning

5/22/14Follow @wroush

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mimic a human’s approach to a task. “The mistake they make is, ‘Oh, a person can do a task this way; therefore the robot should do the task exactly the same way,’” he says. “Well, no. For one thing it’s not as dexterous and its vision isn’t as good. It wasn’t meant to replace a person.”

But even if Baxter is a little slower than a human worker at some jobs, Brooks says it may still be a good investment, since it can work longer shifts and endure harsher environments.

A “light bulb” moment at one customer site occurred when factory managers realized they were focusing too much on Baxter’s cycle time for a certain task, Brooks says. “As we improved the software, it got closer, but it was still 10 or 20 percent slower,” he says. But what was far more important was that this particular factory floor was often uncomfortably hot for human workers. “The people didn’t like doing [the task], and the management didn’t want to have people doing it.”

The task itself, though, involved putting the finished products on a pile, not passing them directly to someone else. That buffer meant Baxter didn’t have to beat a human to be more efficient—it just had to show more fortitude.

“That was the realization: that if you put a robot into a line of production with other people, as long as there is an input buffer and an output buffer, it doesn’t need to have the same cycle time,” Brooks says. “They are rethinking a lot of the applications for Baxter, now that they have that constraint removed.”

The industries where Rethink is finding the most customers include warehousing and logistics, consumer goods, and plastics manufacturing. As it zeroed on those market segments and abandoned others, Rethink retrenched last December, laying off about 20 of its 90 employees.

Today, only half of Rethink’s engineering staff consists of mechanical engineers and other hardware specialists, Brooks says. The rest are all software engineers, and they’re working not just on making Baxter smarter but on opening up the Intera operating system to third parties, who could eventually sell their own control software.

In Brooks’s vision of the future, Baxter will evolve into a true platform, open to a variety of vendors selling software modules or hardware attachments for specific applications.

The more open that platform becomes, Brooks acknowledges, the more often customers and vendors will want to do things with Baxter that Rethink never anticipated. And that’s a natural evolution, he says.

“That’s what you always discover with customers when you have a new technology,” Brooks says. “Until you get out there with enough product and enough people, you are never going to learn those things. You can fiddle in the lab for years and not know how it’s really going to shake out.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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