When a company purchases a robot like Baxter, part of its long-term value is invisible. That's because the $25,000 manufacturing bot is more than just hardware: Like your smartphone, its operating system will be updated over time, adding new features and capabilities. Therein lies the real value of today's worker robots: They learn and get more efficient over time.
Baxter, a semi-autonomous, humanoid factory robot made by Rethink Robotics, just got some major improvements from the mothership in Boston, Mass. Intera 3 is the latest version of Baxter's underlying software and it promises to speed up Baxter's movements, make them more precise, and generally turn Baxter into a better worker.
For companies who have purchased Baxter—such as the Rodon Group in Hatfield, Pennsylvania—this is where that $25,000 investment really starts to pay off. Consider this: A few weeks ago, Baxter may have been packing plastic parts on the floor of the Rodon Group's factory and moving along to the next box. Now, it can fill those boxes much more quickly and with fewer errors.
There has been much consternation about the fact that robots like Baxter appear to be gunning for our jobs. Indeed, why bother with a human being when a robot can work longer hours without complaining or stopping for lunch? And unlike Baxter, even the highest-performing human worker can't double his or her efficiency overnight.
Yes, Baxter is better at certain repetitive tasks than we are. But fear not, say the factory owners: Robots are just taking over the boring, potentially dangerous jobs and freeing the masses up to take on more rewarding tasks.
The underlying platform that powers Baxter controls two things: Baxter's physical capabilities and its interface. In this case, "interface" means much more than a glass screen and a few buttons. Baxter is designed to work alongside non-technical factory workers and be easily programmed by his human colleagues. As items move down the conveyor belt, Baxter learns its surroundings and responds to people appropriately, right down to the cartoon-like facial expressions it makes.
This particular update to Intera focuses on making Baxter faster, smoother, and more precise. But who knows? Maybe the next upgrade will teach him to seal up the box of widgets and hand it off to somebody else.