Check out this video:
The robot being demoed is Baxter, which is a new industrial robot and the brainchild of Rodney Brooks, the guy who brought you the Roomba. Here is how NPR describes the technology (Could This Robot Save Your Job?, Mar 9).
Rethink Robotics, describes Baxter as a collaborative manufacturing robot. Brooks showed how Baxter, which costs $22,000 per model, can work alongside humans — not replace them — to do simple, repetitive tasks. …
Baxter has eyes for feedback. Though its eyes don’t see you as a person, they serve as a signal as to what it’ll do next.
Normally robots need to be programmed, but this one learns by physical training. Move Baxter’s arm and it learns that’s how it should move its arm. In just a few minutes, the robot can be taught, for example, to take something out of a box and place it on a conveyor belt, then, after it’s assembled, put it back in a box.
So this is seriously a pretty gee whiz bit of technology but does it live up to the hype of working with humans and saving jobs?
Those claims strike me as a bit of hyperbole. Capital gets substituted for labor — that’s the way it works — so Baxter is going to cost someone a job. However, the workers that remain will be more productive and they and their employers should be more competitive in the market place even if they are located in high wage countries.
The real question is in what kind of setting will these machines be really useful. I suspect that the action is on lower volume work that otherwise wouldn’t be worth a special purpose robot or would be too cumbersome to program. I suspect for Baxter to really be worthwhile it has to be cheap to buy and easy to maintain. On top of that, it has to be easy to change over between jobs. If the stars align on that, it could be very appealing for smaller manufacturers whose plants frequently change over from one job to the next.