Meet Baxter, the “huggable” robot for your grandma

Baxter, the $22,000 industrial robot manufactured in the US for US manufacturing companies, could find applications in more personal settings, including eldercare, in the not-too-distant future.

Baxter (left) with Rethink Robotics CEO Rodney Brooks.

Rethink Robotics, the company behind Baxter, will release a software development kit (SDK) for the robot in January that could open the floodgates for new applications, said Rodney Brooks, robotics genius and CEO of Rethink. “Our story is manufacturing, but there will be new software every two to three months with new capabilities,” Brooks told attendees of EMtech 2012 at MIT Wednesday morning. “Researchers will find places to use it that we wouldn’t have guessed.”

Baxter is appealing for personal applications like eldercare and healthcare assistance because it is easily trained by mere mortals who can walk the robot through its tasks — without coding.  And, unlike large and powerful industrial robots of the past — which are segregated from people on the factory floor for safety reasons — Baxter is approachable by actual people.

“Yes,” Brooks said, “you can hug this robot.”

The idea of robots helping senior citizens is not new. There is increasing evidence that it is both more economical and healthier to keep older people in their homes, as opposed to nursing homes or assisted care facilities, so there’s a potentially huge market for technology that can help.

As Scientific American reported in 2010:

The idea is to use robots, resembling anything from lunch carts to human companions, to assist seniors and the homebound with day-to-day tasks as well as communications with family members via social networking, videoconferencing and the Web. For this to work the interface with the robot must be intuitive, and robot-makers must allay any misgivings that the elderly might have about relying on new technology to watch over them.

I watched a Rethink employee train Baxter to perform a set task and it was pretty amazing. Because of the easy user interface — you pick up Baxter’s arm and move it through the required motions, then push a button to save that sequence — Baxter really does seem, as Brooks said, more like an iPhone(s aapl) than a robot. That means health aides, nurses or grandchildren could train Baxter to perform a range of repetitive tasks.

Baxter picks up Junior Mints.

Given the demographics of the aging population, there will be a need for much more productivity in eldercare going forward, Brooks said. Baxter sports an expressive on-screen “human” face that can register uncertainty if he is unable to comprehend what he’s supposed to do.

Baxter just started shipping, and Wednesday’s event at MIT’s Media Lab was his first public showcase. He (or “it,” as Brooks prefers to call Baxter) held center stage in the MIT Media Lab’s Winter Garden, plucking up boxes of Junior Mints and candles and loading them into a plastic Jack O’Lantern.