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EmTech: Program a Revolutionary Robot to Do Your Bidding

It’ll soon be possible to hack Baxter—a new kind of industrial robot—to do just about anything. Let the mayhem commence.
October 25, 2012

Robotics pioneer Rodney Brooks believes his super-smart industrial robot, Baxter, could have a big impact on academic research. Speaking on stage at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference yesterday, Brooks said his company, Rethink Robotics, plans to release a software development kit (SDK) for Baxter in January.

The SDK will make it easy researchers, hardware hackers, and anyone else, to modify Baxter to respond in new ways and perform new tasks. “We’re expecting thousands of people to buy these for research,” Brooks told the audience at EmTech, “and I expect this to revolutionize robotics.”

The basic version of Baxter costs just $22,000, and comes with two large arms, an expressive flat-screen for a face, multiple cameras, infrared sensors, and force-detection sensors in its joints. The price certainly seems low enough for plenty of colleges, and perhaps even some high schools, to afford to buy one for students to experiment with. Brooks said that Baxter could inspire some important new trends of research. He cited Simultaneous Localization And Mapping (SLAM)–a technique used for navigation by lots of robots, including Google’s autonomous car–as an example of the kind of thing that researchers working with Baxter might come up with. 

Hardware-hacking enthusiasts will probably dream up some interesting new jobs for Baxter, too. With any luck, you might see a hacked Baxter mixing drinks at your local nerd-friendly tavern before too long. “I’m really excited about all the researchers who are going to do some crazy things,” Brooks said.

Baxter is remarkably safe. It moves too slowly to cause much harm and uses its sensors to detect and avoid collision. You can teach the robot to perform a variety of tasks simply by moving one of its large robot arms through the desired motion–the arm automatically compensates for gravity, making it feel almost weightless. 

I previously wrote about the impact Baxter could have on manufacturing. Because unskilled workers can quickly reprogram the robot, Rethink believes it could enable small manufacturers to automate more tasks. It could also make it feasible for manufacturers in the U.S. and Europe to compete with Asian companies that rely on very low-cost human labour (watch a video of Brooks talking about Baxter at Rethink’s headquarters).

EmTech attendees had a chance to play with Baxter in person, as Brooks brought one along to hand out Halloween candy. In itself, this is pretty amazing, since industrial robots normally have to be fenced off from human workers to avoid harming them.

David Sweeney, MIT Technology Review’s Marketing Communications Manager, meets Baxter at EmTech.

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