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.

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