I was recently sent a link (http://ow.ly/mKpFP) to an interesting presentation by Rodney Brooks about “Baxter” the robot. I think that Baxter is a great step forward in the marketing of robot technology, Baxter appears to be “safe” and responsive to interaction with humans. Interaction is one of the key relational elements we can also find between ourselves and animals and even other people. Dogs and foxes are similar creatures, but have completely different ways of interacting with humans, and therefore have a different relationship. Relationships are architected as a function of the interaction in terms of many things, interests, humour, danger etc., but this is a digression…..
Collectively, I think that people’s view of robots is bipolar, with Baxter however seemingly being positioned right in the middle, which for me seems very strange. Let me explain.
Growing up reading the excellent works of author Isaac Asimov, I had the expectation that by now we would have robots functioning to help us as part of our daily life. The robots in Asimov’s books have things like “positronic” brains that aspire to think as well or better than humans, with bodies that emulate the human form. Baxter is a real move in this direction, having both a physical sensitivity to the environment through what must be a vast array of sensors, and a “user interface” that gives the feeling of interaction. Development of robotics in this direction is expensive, but exciting. The aim is to create a mechanised friend for humanity, with pretty much no expense spared.
In the presentation however, Baxter is also portrayed as being as an industrial robot, positioning “him” in the opposite camp of robotics. Industrial robots are a progression of production automation. Machines started out as ways to perform a repetitive process that progressed to the level that they were able to replace repetitive jobs that humans would do. The downfall of industrial robot use in the electronics manufacturing industry has been cost, flexibility and maintenance. As production mix and the number of model variations grow, robots need to become more sophisticated, but therefore more expensive. The expense includes the initial robot development, the price of the hardware and manufacture, and the on-going maintenance. Keeping machines working well is often neglected, until something breaks, a practice that results in poor quality and unreliability.
Baxter though represents amazing flexibility and versatility, especially considering the ease of teaching the process. How practical though is it to think that Baxter style robots could replace the workers that create our electronic products? I think it is close to zero. The design is just too impractical for industrial use in electronics. People are far more flexible, versatile and in this case certainly less expensive. Perhaps this positioning of Baxter is to attract budget for further investment, which is fair enough if there is a potential return.
I cannot see ultimately though that a single robot concept can fit both “worlds”. They are two quite different things. The creators of Baxter are to be commended though; this is a major step forward. I don’t think though that people working in the manufacturing industry need to worry just yet however. We have seen automations of many generations come along. After any initial concerns, the “status quo” resumes, with the benefits of easier working and the opportunity to produce more products.
I have to say that though I would love to have an interactive robot “assistant”, I would be the first volunteer to test such a thing, the realistic side of me however is working at the other end of robotics, creating the information that can evolve the opportunities for improvement of our current operations.
I can easily see that over the years to come, we will get to a stage where machines on the shop-floor will be able to “self-learn” much more effectively than today, using perhaps enhanced information coming from design and future evolutions of our production engineering tools such as Valor MSS Process Preparation, so as to be able to just select a product, select a line, and just say “go”. This is automation in the extreme, involving next generations of machines that we have today, plus new technologies such as 3D printing, maybe with some people thrown in as well, and you never know, the children’s children’s children of Baxter……. Comments?