The Terminator wants to kill John Conner. Most robots today don’t want to kill anybody, but they would if they got the chance.
Today’s robots are mostly just arms. Small, fast moving arms that pick up small objects and put them down somewhere else or giant, strong arms that wield welders on sheet metal for industrial products. These arms are precise and move in a carefully orchestrated dance that is programmed into them ahead of time and repeated perfectly time and time again. Most of these arms are dumb and blind and move incredibly fast. They’re dangerous and if one were to collide with you your head while moving on its appointed rounds it might kill you. As a result, automation robots are cordoned off in cages or behind glass.
Not all robots are like this of course. The iRobot Roomba is an automated vacuum cleaner that roams around your house scaring your cats while cleaning floors with little or no interaction from you. iRobot was founded by Rodney Brooks, formerly the chair of MIT’s computer science department, Dr. Brooks has been hiding for four years at his new company: Rethink Robotics. He’s not the only one, but Dr. Brooks thinks robots might be more useful if they weren’t so dangerous. Rethink Robotics, along with a few other companies, are now offering a new class of ‘compliant robots’ which aren’t so fast, but much more friendly that today’s automation robots.
Typical automation robots are so fast and precise because they use powerful motors and precision gears to move grippers perfectly from place to place. Compliant robots, like Baxter from Rethink Robotics, use cheaper motors to drive springs that actuate the arm. When compliant arms come in contact with a soft, fragile, human, they give a little. Force sensors in the springs can slow them down and the puny human is spared. Since the blind and dumb arms won’t accidentally kill or injure anyone, they can be released from their cages and work side by side with us.
Sitting next to the robot does more than enable friendships; it opens up new opportunities for easier programming. For example, Baxter can be programmed by a person simply grabbing the cuff of its arm and showing it where to start and finish a movement. Compare that with traditional automation robots which sometimes take months or longer to program. Baxter, and robots like it, is cheaper, can be installed or moved around a factory floor easily and programmed for a new task in hours.
As most everybody knows, manufacturing has been leaving the United States and Europe for more than a decade now and the biggest driver has been cheaper labor. Even when poor Chinese laborers finally start demanding the same gadgets they’ve been cheaply building for the west, there will still be poor laborers in the next third world country to build them. The West loses jobs, but the rest work like slaves. It’s not a good situation, so, how do we compete?
“Reshoring” is the name of a trend-in-the-making: manufacturing returning to the West. There are still thousands of manufacturing companies the United States. They concentrate on high value, short run jobs that may last only for a few weeks. They’re responding to another important market trend: customization. New products from other small companies that get started on websites like Kickstarter can’t justify the tooling, high costs, or even traditional automation robots, that they’ll pay for with the economies of scale and a million parts. An inexpensive, easily reprogrammed robot that works 24/7, without health care costs, is just the ticket for small manufacturing companies and the dozens of businesses they enable. Baxter and friends might well replace a few jobs (jobs that, for the most part, already left for cheaper shores), but, hopefully, they create just as many more in all those small, innovative businesses. At the same time, we can expect unique products for smaller niches and tailored to our individual taste.
No new technology here, but this slight tweak has the potential to change the balance of world economy. Baxter, by the way, is made in America.