Is Baxter Increasing Production or Replacing Humans?

Baxter is a new manufacturing robot from Rethink Robotics. It is created to perform the menial repetitive tasks that occur at an assembly line such as picking items of a conveyor belt. Baxter is expected to increase the productivity of U.S. manufacturers and help them retain business that would otherwise migrate overseas.

Rodney Brooks with Baxter

The red and charcoal-gray Baxter goes on sale October 2012. Baxter has five cameras, a sonar sensor that detects motion 360 degrees around it, and can learn tasks within an hour. It is also very cheap in comparison to other assembly-line robots which can cost $200,00 each. At $22,000 a unit, Baxter is the equivalent paying a human $4 an hour for three years of eight-hour shifts.

Other assembly-line robots can be dangerous, so they are often isolated in cages away from employees. Baxter however, is designed to work safely alongside workers and can be set down safely almost anywhere on a factory floor. Its eyes are on a swiveling computer screen and greet any worker who approaches. To teach Baxter a job, a human simply grabs its arms, simulates the desired task, and presses a button to set the pattern. Baxter will also be upgradable. The company plans to update Baxter’s software for free every few months, enabling more complex behaviors such as two-handed manipulation.

Rethink Robotics’ origins date back to the 1990s when founder Rodney Brooks got an unwelcome taste of the realities of the global supply chain as the cost of shipping products overseas rose along with the price of oil. Rethink Robotics was conceived as an attempt to change the economics of manufacturing.

Baxter is designed to make U.S. workers more productive than their foreign rivals. However, worker production is not really a problem. According to IHS, U.S. companies produce about $2 trillion worth of goods annually while China produces $2.2 trillion. U.S. companies also do it with a tenth of the manpower as China. America’s manufacturing issues are more than just productivity. Companies use overseas manufacturers because they’re cheaper and nearer the rest of their supply chain.

There is also the fear that Baxter could replace U.S. workers. Rethink Chief Executive Officer Scott Eckert compares Baxter to the arrival of the personal computer. He says it effectively turns workers from menial laborers into robot managers. So the question remains. Is Baxter really going to keep jobs in the U.S. or will companies continue to use overseas manufacturers. If U.S. companies do decide to use Baxter instead of overseas manufacturers, then will U.S. workers simply be replaced? Its tough to say but Rodney Brooks seems to believe Baxter is the future to saving U.S. jobs and manufacturing.

Businessweek Article

6 thoughts on “Is Baxter Increasing Production or Replacing Humans?

  1. The idea of these robots replacing human workers is a scary one but it is something that really has to be accepted in today’s growing technological world. Although article does mention that China and the U.S. produce almost equal amounts of goods, it would be excellent to get some of that productivity back over to the States. It would allow for those who are educated in technology to get jobs as these so called “robot managers.” Also, it would eliminate potential ethical issues that are so often cited with outsourcing such as unfit working conditions and severe underpayment. I think having these robots will only benefit America and build jobs rather than eliminate them.

  2. Using robots as replacement to humans is a tricky situation. On one hand it’s exciting that us humans have been able to create such innovative and advanced technology, yet on the other hand is scary that soon humans will no longer be doing as much work. We’ve seen with the release of the Iphone 5 that Apple could not keep up with the demand. It’s exciting to know that Baxter could help with high demand production, but I don’t see how it could help keep more jobs in the US. If Baxter becomes prominent in the workplace, soon I fear that it will fully replace all humans. During this economy, it’s important that we focus on making more jobs for humans instead of robots.

  3. I agree with cwolf. Let’s face it, Rethink Chief Executive Officer Scott Eckert has an interest to protect (his job) so he would say humans can eventually become “robot managers.” But this career option will not be sustainable because if technology keeps advancing there will eventually be robot managers that are smart enough to train their robot subordinates.

    Baxter currently doesn’t have the sociable characteristics of a human, which makes me believe it can’t work in a workplace where there’s human interaction such as a restaurant. However, as I’ve previously stated, if technology keeps advancing it’s only a matter of time before robots are programmed to interact with humans. I will then lose my job in the food service industry.

    In summary, introducing Baxter into the workforce is a dangerous slippery slope. It’s only a matter of time before robots equipped with human emotions/intelligence replace “human robot managers” and eventually the human workforce.

  4. I agree with all of the comments above. I like the idea of having robots and advancing technology, but not the idea of them replacing humans. Using robots to replace jobs what humans can do (even if it is a tedious job such as picking items off a belt in a factory) is helping eliminate more jobs than helping create them. This new robot employee trend would not only affect jobs in the U.S. but also jobs overseas, where millions of people depend on factory jobs for some kind of living.

    Perhaps, a better way of using robots would be to train them for jobs that are very dangerous or stressful for humans to do (ex: construction, mining, etc.) Tasks that are dangerous in a factory might be the way to go about using robots. This is something that humans would benefit from because dangerous jobs are not only a risk to the people doing them, but also to the employer who would be responsible for his employees.

    Another thing that concerns me is that Baxter is programmed to be “friendly” with humans. As much as he is friendly, a person who manages robots is not really going to find his or her job very rewarding. How can this manger give his “employees” feedback? It would be more of a maintenance job than a managing job because the robots always perform the same – unless they have some weak screws or chips. Plus as the commenter above mentioned, this manger might even be eventually replaced by a robot manager.

  5. I do not like the idea of using robots in the workforce. Robots and other technological advancements are simply limiting human interaction more so. I fear that in the future humans may completely lose the ability to interact with each other on a face to face basis. While at the grocery store yesterday, the lines were longer in the self check out lines than in the cashier lines. Many are becoming immune to the fact that they prefer interaction with electronics more than they do with real people.

    Robots in the workplace pose dangers in more areas than just social interaction. In the event of a fatal accident involving the robot, who is responsible? Humans have the capability to problem solve and use common sense during an emergency situation. Even with all of the technology in the world, in more times than not a human can react better in a dangerous situation than a programmed robot can. The labor force needs real people to run efficiently and robots simply cannot compare to the capabilities of human beings.

  6. I believe replacing humans with machines is a very radical and unrealistic idea in regards to the labor force. Before I start let me point out that the easiest way to eliminate the need for Baxter would be to get rid of minimum wage laws ($8.25-Illinois) and other payroll taxes imposed on employers. (I won’t get into taxes because that is a political issue) There are three parties involved here. First is the U.S. worker, second, the foreign worker, and third the company or industry. It seems to me that the reason for Baxter is to get around minimum wage laws and payroll taxes. This raises the question of “Is it cheaper to outsource to a foreign country because U.S. labor is too expensive?” Upper management has to answer this question. I believe the answer is outsourcing. But now Baxter has entered into the picture. Financially Baxter seems like the best decision. It’s the cheapest way to produce the most goods which will hopefully maximize profits. But it also is the riskiest. The obvious risk management question is, “what happens when Baxter malfunctions?” I think one defect or glitch in Baxter would be absolutely catastrophic to any company. Example- we need to produce 1 million phones and ship them out by the end of the week (let’s say this decision was made on Monday). Thursday, we have produced 800,000 phones and Baxter malfunctions (our labor force is 70% machine 30% human) I think we all know how the story ends. In conclusion, I think that the idea of Baxter is one too good to be true. After all who created Baxter?

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