Baxter may not be Rosie the Robot, but he’s getting close

Industrial robots are fine. They do tons of repetitive, mind-numbing work that people don’t want to do. But they’re rigid and set in their ways. Baxter is different. Baxter is the adaptive, “teachable,” more human-like robot built by Rethink Robotics right here in the US to help US manufacturers compete.

Baxter is much more freewheeling and flexible — both physically and, um, mentally — than his industrial forebears. He adapts to many manufacturing jobs, including handling materials; loading and unloading production lines; packing and unpacking boxes; and light assembly and finishing work.

Baxter is updated regularly via software but he does not require a teaching pendant or a computer programmer to train or run. A human-like interface — an on-screen face that registers happiness, surprise, unhappiness — should make robot-human interaction more, well, human.

Initially, he is shown what to do — typically by the person who used to do that task — and then can adapt to changing conditions (e.g., if the line slows down or speeds up). In Rethink’s rosy scenario, the person who trains Baxter then supervises robots doing the job rather than doing the job himself.

Rethink, once known as Heartland Robotics, was founded by Rodney Brooks, a professor emeritus in robotics at MIT and founder of iRobot, who is sometimes described as “the bad boy of robotics.”

Last May, North Bridge Venture Partners’ Jamie Goldstein named Heartland Robotics one of his top 10 phat startups — new tech companies taking on big, hard problems. In his view, the company’s  “teachable” robots could mean that repetitive jobs that might otherwise go to China stay in this country.

According to a report in IEEE Spectrum, Brooks’ work in China, where he supervised the making of iRobot’s products, drive him to build a robot to help U.S. manufacturers. Brooks told Spectrum:

I realized that [outsourcing manufacturing to China] wasn’t sustainable, because once the cost of Chinese labor starts to go up, the appeal of doing a product there starts to go away.

That sparked the idea for a simple robot that could handle lots of these manual tasks using the same sensors and components that flow into PCs and smartphones.

Check out the Rethink Robotics video to see Baxter at work: