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.
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.