Rethink Robotics' new Baxter android is designed to address some of the issues we've covered recently regarding robots in the workforce. It's intended to be a worker bot that really does work alongside humans on similar tasks, but it's designed to present a friendly face. Truly: it even has a "face" for communicating what it is poised to do next. The machine also has mechanically guided tricks to program it, so humans can push its arms around to teach it about its workspace. The ieee Spectrum robotics blog even notes his arms are elastic, so they're not too rigid. He also costs only $22,000 and thus you'll almost certainly see him in factories sooner than you think.
Thymio II is a new research and educational robot platform that's so cheap it may soon be something your kids are learning to program at school, before going on to program home butler bots or Mars explorer bots. From Swiss research institute EPFL, the $100 machine is a lot like a programmable Roomba, and it's designed to be so flexible it even has attachment points on its top for Lego—it's even programmable graphically, for youngsters, or using a simple language for older kids.
Though it's technically a 3-D printer, you can call the MakerBot machine a robot because it's designed to mechanically reproduce the work of a person—in this case a sculptor or model builder. Okay, it's not quite like the other robots that generally appear in TWIB, but it's actually more likely you'll interact with one versus an ASIMO, for example. MakerBot's just revealed the Desktop 3-D printer 2 and it's capable of such fine precisions—100 microns, or a sheet of printer paper deep—that it may even play a part in printing out parts for amateur or educational robot projects. Check out its abilities in the clip, and tell us it's not revolutionary.
iRobot Buys Evolution. Roomba and warbot leader iRobot has this week bought Evolution Robotics, maker of the Mint floor-cleaner robots, for $74 million. By mopping up its peer, iRobot is trying to address the cheaper end of the market because Mint machines don't do as sophisticated a cleaning job as Roombas.
NASA Spends on Bots. NASA has assigned a sum of $2.7 million for funding eight different robot projects as part of the White House's National Robotics Initiative—all intended to push advances in robotics down on Earth as much as in space.
MIT's Real Muscle. In a move that sounds Frankensteinian, researchers at MIT have been working on making artificial muscles for a robot that're built from genetically engineered real muscle cells. They've tweaked muscle tissue so it reacts to light so they can be activated by precise laser pulses—eventually the muscles may enable tiny robots that can maneuver with incredible precision and flexibility versus machines that are mechanically motivated.
A new survey by Eurobarometer, the Union's official polling agency, is mentioned this week in the Wall Street Journal because it contains some startlingly pro-robot figures. Fully 70% of Europeans have "fairly positive" or "very positive" views about robotics. That's a great big thumbs-up to robots over the other side of the Atlantic, and it's timely too. That's because this week the European government has launched a public-private partnership with industry and academia to push forward robot development and integration inside the EU. The idea is to foster both the design and development of robots inside Europe, to develop legal and political tools for tackling the ethical and moral questions about robots, and also to use them in clever ways to benefit the Union. This last includes using them as "key enablers to help solve Europe‘s societal challenges."
The EU sees robots, in fact, as vital to future growth and competitiveness and notes that "three million jobs are created or maintained worldwide as a result of using one million industrial robots." It also sets its sights on the domestic and professional service robot markets, which it expects to grow by 40% in the coming years. Which basically means Europe really sees value in butlerbots, rescue bots and security bots as well as ones that build cars or iPhones. And it seems that European citizens will welcome them.
But what about robot adoption elsewhere around the world? Today Toyota has a press release saying it's developed a new robot that's designed for the home. The prototype machine is supposed to help people who find it hard to walk, bend and pick things up—which means it's aimed at both the elderly and the mobility-impaired. It'll be showing the robot off soon. This machine is simply the latest in robotic assistants that seem to be pervading Japan at an ever-increasing rate. And this is a nation that used robotic baby seals to help soothe traumatised citizens in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster, apparently to great effect.
China too is embracing robot tech at a swift rate, and it's even designing robots that are specifically designed to work as part of a family such as ECOVAC's new Famibot machine. Like an over-sized Roomba it's designed to play music, purify the air and act as a mobile smoke detector. It'll also control your TV, can record video, and can patrol your home while you're not there looking for intruders—even alerting you if one does show up. The Chinese economy may mean that its citizens won't be getting robots soon, but industry is certainly keen to embrace more robots.
So what of the U.S.? One may take the flurry of articles about robots in manufacturing as a sign that American citizens are wary of robots taking over their jobs. But this interesting article points out that such fears are probably unfounded: The argument runs that "factory jobs left U.S., the factories never did," and instead they're now peopled by machines—so much so that while 30% of Americans were directly employed in manufacturing in the 1950s, just 9% are nowadays. And as this trend continues with robotized workforces, with Baxter as a great example, there'll be more demand for well-trained and smart robot controllers versus unskilled shop floor workers. That's a demand that one can suggest may actually have a positive influence on American science and engineering education. And, in turn, more interesting jobs.
In fact Americans may have to embrace robots soon, according to a report in the Huffington Post that talks about robots helping Japan's aging population. The skew in the age demographic means that if Japan wants to remain productive it can't afford to have younger workers looking after the elderly—and though the U.S. isn't so rapidly aging, it is an inevitable result of better healthcare and healthier modern living.
So the next time you turn on your Roomba or read about a U.S.-owned Predator drone striking a target far away in another country, consider how you'll feel in a handful of years when a robot could be driving your car, cleaning your carpets, and replacing you in your boring job.
[Image: Flickr user Ben Husmann]