This account is pending registration confirmation. Please click on the link within the confirmation email previously sent you to complete registration.
Need a new registration confirmation email? Click here
TheStreet Open House

Baxter the Robot Could Build a Brighter Future

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- This decade could have been the 1930s. It's turning out to be more like the 1970s.

By that I mean we're going through an economic transition that takes time to work out. Back then rising oil prices took profits out of the factory economy, while computing gradually brought productivity to offices, automating mental work, making creativity more valuable.

The PC was the turning point. By turning semiconductors into a mass-marketed device anyone could use, we unleashed a revolution that's still going on. We have spent a generation replacing rote mental labor that had been done by secretaries and middle managers with algorithms, generating enormous wealth that made high oil prices tolerable.

Now oil sets a brake on any effort to create economic growth. Those office jobs are gone. They are no more coming back than your grandfather's job pouring steel or assembling cars.

We have to invent our way out of our economic problems. No set of political solutions will work for us.


Today's unemployment, in other words, is based on how our economy is structured. We need a new economy. So the home of productivity has become the lab, creating technologies that let us both harvest energy and replace physical work with the products of raw intellect.

And the first PC of that era is now rolling off a Massachusetts assembly line.

Its name is Baxter.

Baxter is a general purpose industrial robot from Rethink Robotics in Boston.

MassHighTech estimates it cost $62 million in venture capital to bring to market, and it costs $22,000.

Robotics is no longer new. We've had industrial robots around for 30 years, and surgeons love their Da Vinci units from Intuitive Surgical (ISRG), which make them both more productive and more accurate. (Intuitive Surgical shareholders like the company, too.)

Baxter is a humanoid robot for the factory floor.

What makes Baxter different is the way it can be programmed -- by being "shown how" -- and its extensible platform. Just like a PC, it will take new peripherals made to its standards, and a software development kit will ship next year. It also plugs into a regular wall outlet.

Co-founder Rodney Brooks previously co-founded iRobot, makers of the Roomba vacuum. He built Baxter in roughly the size and shape of a human being, with eyes displayed on its main screen that focus on the task at hand and provide feedback with human-like expressions, plus two arms, each with seven ranges of motion. It's no bigger or stronger than your co-workers, and its actuators are run through springs, so they can measure forces and act as shock absorbers, increasing safety in unstructured environments.

Brooks told IEEE Spectrum that his target market is the 300,000 small U.S. manufacturers who currently can't afford robots.

Run it for three shifts and you get a "labor" cost of $4/hour. Baxter turns rote work into machine work, and low-paid assembly workers into higher-paid robot supervisors.


Baxter is just the start of something, like the Apple II was the start of something. There will be competitors. There will be improvements. There will be peripherals and a host of new versions. And there will be pushback, from people who fear the end of simple assembly jobs.

There is no guarantee that, in 2050, we'll celebrate Rodney Brooks as the Steve Jobs of our time, or as the real Lawrence Robertson, the fictional founder of U.S. Robots in Isaac Asimov's stories.

He might end up like Ed Roberts, who developed the MITS Altair but died in relative obscurity (although Bill Gates showed up at his deathbed, since Roberts had given Gates his first job).

Count Baxter as one point on a continuum, a marker along the road that leads to a new era of economic growth, a way out of our malaise into a brighter future.

At the time of publication, the author had no investments in companies mentioned in this article. This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Select the service that is right for you!

COMPARE ALL SERVICES
Action Alerts PLUS
Try it NOW

Jim Cramer and Stephanie Link actively manage a real portfolio and reveal their money management tactics while giving advanced notice before every trade.

Product Features:
  • $2.5+ million portfolio
  • Large-cap and dividend focus
  • Intraday trade alerts from Cramer
  • Weekly roundups
TheStreet Quant Ratings
Try it NOW
Only $49.95/yr

Access the tool that DOMINATES the Russell 2000 and the S&P 500.

Product Features:
  • Buy, hold, or sell recommendations for over 4,300 stocks
  • Unlimited research reports on your favorite stocks
  • A custom stock screener
  • Upgrade/downgrade alerts
Stocks Under $10
Try it NOW

David Peltier, uncovers low dollar stocks with extraordinary upside potential that are flying under Wall Street's radar.

Product Features:
  • Model portfolio
  • Stocks trading below $10
  • Intraday trade alerts
  • Weekly roundups
Dividend Stock Advisor
Try it NOW

Jim Cramer's protege, David Peltier, identifies the best of breed dividend stocks that will pay a reliable AND significant income stream.

Product Features:
  • Diversified model portfolio of dividend stocks
  • Alerts when market news affect the portfolio
  • Bi-weekly updates with exact steps to take - BUY, HOLD, SELL
Real Money Pro
Try it NOW

All of Real Money, plus 15 more of Wall Street's sharpest minds delivering actionable trading ideas, a comprehensive look at the market, and fundamental and technical analysis.

Product Features:
  • Real Money + Doug Kass Plus 15 more Wall Street Pros
  • Intraday commentary & news
  • Ultra-actionable trading ideas
Options Profits
Try it NOW

Our options trading pros provide daily market commentary and over 100 monthly option trading ideas and strategies to help you become a well-seasoned trader.

Product Features:
  • 100+ monthly options trading ideas
  • Actionable options commentary & news
  • Real-time trading community
  • Options TV
To begin commenting right away, you can log in below using your Disqus, Facebook, Twitter, OpenID or Yahoo login credentials. Alternatively, you can post a comment as a "guest" just by entering an email address. Your use of the commenting tool is subject to multiple terms of service/use and privacy policies - see here for more details.
Submit an article to us!
DOW 17,131.97 +100.83 0.59%
S&P 500 1,998.98 +14.85 0.75%
NASDAQ 4,552.7590 +33.8570 0.75%

Brokerage Partners

Rates from Bankrate.com

  • Mortgage
  • Credit Cards
  • Auto

Free Newsletters from TheStreet

My Subscriptions:

After the Bell

Before the Bell

Booyah! Newsletter

Midday Bell

TheStreet Top 10 Stories

Winners & Losers

Register for Newsletters
Top Rated Stocks Top Rated Funds Top Rated ETFs