March 27, 2013
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images
If you meet Baxter, the latest humanoid robot from Rethink Robotics – you should get comfortable with him, because you'll likely be seeing more of him soon.
Rethink Robotics released Baxter last fall and received an overwhelming response from the manufacturing industry, selling out of their production capacity through April. He's cheap to buy ($22,000), easy to train, and can safely work side-by-side with humans. He's just what factories need to make their assembly lines more efficient – and yes, to replace costly human workers.
But manufacturing is only the beginning.
This April, Rethink will launch a software platform that will allow Baxter to do a more complex sequencing of tasks – for example, picking up a part, holding it in front of an inspection station and receiving a signal to place it in a "good" or "not good" pile. The company is also releasing a software development kit soon that will allow third parties – like university robotics researchers – to create applications for Baxter.
These third parties "are going to do all sorts of stuff we haven't envisioned," says Scott Eckert, CEO of Rethink Robotics. He envisions something similar to Apple's app store happening for Baxter. A spiffed-up version of the robot could soon be seen flipping burgers at McDonalds, folding t-shirts at Gap, or pouring coffee at Starbucks.
"Could [Baxter] be a barista?" asks Eckert. "It's not a target market, but it's something that's pretty repeatable. Put a cup in, push a button, espresso comes out, etc. There are simple repeatable service tasks that Baxter could do over time."