Rethink Robotics Turns Robots Into Better Co-Workers - InformationWeek

InformationWeek is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

IoT
IoT
IT Leadership // Digital Business
News
11/28/2014
08:36 AM
Connect Directly
Twitter
RSS
E-Mail
100%
0%

Rethink Robotics Turns Robots Into Better Co-Workers

Collaborative robotics means busting industrial robots out of their safety cages and teaching them to work with and learn from people.

8 Lessons From Rosetta Comet Mission
8 Lessons From Rosetta Comet Mission
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

Rethink Robotics's collaborative robots, already on the market, are definitely not your father's robots, and the new Robot Positioning System (RPS) software upgrade makes clear just how fundamentally different they are in concept.

Since its early 1970s beginnings, the central drive of the robotics revolution in industrial manufacturing has been the development of fast, powerful devices to do things that are too dangerous or fatiguing, or require too great speed, precision, or force, for a human being. That combination of speed, power, and danger meant that robots had to be caged, partly for worker safety, but mainly because robots needed input materials and output constructions always to be in exactly the same positions and orientations. Within that necessary cage, the frontiers of robotics were speed, force, durability, and precision.

[Software smarter than you? Read Geekend: Replacing the Turing Test.]

Rethink Robotics set out to open a new frontier in a completely different direction. In 2012, Rethink introduced Baxter, its "collaborative robot," the brainchild and vision of legendary roboticist Rodney Brooks.

Baxter, courtesy of Rethink Robotics.
Baxter, courtesy of Rethink Robotics.

The fundamental idea of collaborative robotics is that a robot should work among -- not instead of -- human workers. Humans not only don't require a fixed environment, they lose much of their effectiveness when "everything gets bolted to the floor and changing a process is a big deal. At the end of the day, humans are good at responding to the market because they're flexible and you can just tell them, 'Here's what we're doing today,' and they do that," Jim Lawton, CMO at Rethink, says. "But with traditional robots, everything is fixed." An enclosed robot costs money, time, and effort to rebuild or move. On average, to change a traditional robot's task requires 200 hours of expensive coder time.

Lawton explains Rethink's insight: "We really need technology that allows rapid response to the market place, and that requires a different kind of robot."

A collaborative robot, as Rethink's engineers define it, is intended to work interactively in a people-compatible way. Baxter's two arms monitor force continuously at every joint -- the system always knows how much force it exerts in which directions. Constantly consulting its cameras and sensors, Baxter decides whether and when to execute each step of its programming (or to stop and ask for help) on every iteration of its work process. To tell Baxter what to do, a human worker manipulates Baxter's arms (which have embedded sensors and cameras) and Baxter records and plays back what it has been shown in constant comparison with real-time sensor/camera input.

In short, Baxter collaborates with human workers like another worker: It feels its way to a proper grip, looks where it is going, and learns by being shown how to do a thing.

Thus Baxter is not merely safe around people, but good with them. Instead of automating processes for which humans are too slow, weak, imprecise, or fragile, Baxter automates difficult-for-people tasks that workers need done well to be more productive.

Manufacturing and assembly tasks often are difficult for people because they require close attention to extremely dull and repetitive actions, a combination that all but guarantees carelessness and "spacing out" in humans. When Baxter packs shelving unit parts into a kit, puts an exact number of plastic cups in a neat stack into a plastic sleeve, or moves squeeze tube caps from a line to a filling machine, it doesn't get bored, careless, or sloppy. It counts, places, picks, and positions just as carefully at the end of three back-to-back shifts as it did in the first few minutes.

The human workers downstream from Baxter receive 100% correct work every time, and can concentrate on exercising their uniquely human judgment, perception, understanding, and foresight, without having to catch boredom-induced mistakes, report inattentive coworkers, or take turns at stupefying tasks.

Another advantage of the collaborative robotics approach is that because so much of the capability is in the software and "liveware," Baxter tends to increase in value after purchase. Where a traditional robot all too often ends up gathering dust in its cage when changing business needs eliminate its one job, workers familiar with Baxter and its capabilities find more uses for it, and as new software comes in from Rethink Robotics, Baxter becomes better and quicker at more complex tasks. For example, in just under a year, software upgrades tripled Baxter's speed and doubled its precision on a test task.

The most recent software improvement, the addition of RPS to the Intera-3.1 operating system, not only enhances Baxter's value, but also demonstrates what collaborative robotics means in practice. Baxter orients to its environment by camera-checking against "landmarks," which are small fixed plaques printed in high-contrast patterns. RPS allows Baxter to recalculate and reshape its internal model of the workspace and task. A misplaced box, a shifted table, or a slightly different placement of a materials pile doesn't stop the operation. Returning Baxter to a previously trained task requires only showing it the familiar landmarks before resuming work.

RPS, in other words, is a software update that not only makes Baxter more productive, but makes it more collaborative. That, more than anything else, may show the commitment of Rethink to the vision of collaborative robotics.

The Internet of Things demands reliable connectivity, but standards remain up in the air. Here's how to kick your IoT strategy into high gear. Get the new IoT Goes Mobile issue of InformationWeek Tech Digest today. (Free registration required.)

John Barnes has 31 commercially published and 2 self-published novels,  along with hundreds of magazine articles, short stories, blog posts, and encyclopedia articles.  Most of his life he has written professionally; his day jobs have included teaching at every ... View Full Bio

We welcome your comments on this topic on our social media channels, or [contact us directly] with questions about the site.
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Page 1 / 2   >   >>
Susan Fourtané
50%
50%
Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
12/2/2014 | 5:09:35 AM
Re: Smart way to approach robotics
Michelle, 

I have a totally opposed vision and expections to the one you have. :) I can't wait to the time when people can spend more time on interesting tasks to make the most of their time on this life leaving all the boring, repetitive tasks at all levels to robots. 

Life is too short to spend too much time performing tasks than even necessary they are not really rewarding. It's just stuff that has to be done. 

Robots like Baxter, and many other AIs, can work together with humans and help by doing the boring and repetitive stuff, which I doubt anyone enjoys.

Workers who perform repetitive tasks in production lines do it because they didn't have the chance to get a better education to get a better job, or maybe not getting a better education was their choice.

Online education is going to help there bringing more affordable, or free education closer to those who want to get further in life.

I can't imagine that someone would say they love to screw caps onto toothpaste tubes eight hours a day. How can that affect the brain? After a while it's practically impossible to focus and you naturally slow down. 

Robots can go on and on at the same speed. And the workers who did the boring stuff before can be in charge of the robots' maintenance, programming, etc. 

"There is value in working through the really boring stuff to get to the interesting bits."

What could be the best example of that? 

-Susan

 
Susan Fourtané
50%
50%
Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
12/2/2014 | 2:35:31 AM
Re: Smart way to approach robotics
Brian,

"Robotics along with 3D printing and drones are developing at a fast pace."

Yes. And don't forget IoT in that mix. Put them all together and you get a massive change in production manufacturing, something that will change manufacturing as we know it. 

But only manufacturing, you can use the mix in many other industries, including healthcare. It's fascinating. Also, yes, BYOR might be coming along at some point, too. 

Now, life extension research needs to hurry up in finding ways to extend life to at least 200 conserving good mental and physical capabilities. 

-Susan
Ariella
50%
50%
Ariella,
User Rank: Author
12/1/2014 | 10:02:10 AM
Re: I feel like a
<  Part of the problem is that as we advance further in capability, the "employee" side of the job (making a living wage, feeling useful, having a place in the economy) and the "producer" side of the job (adding value to the collective work, achieving the common purpose, having a claim on the employer) are rapidly decoupling>

@JohnBarnes that reminds of my days as a labor studies student. Back then the decoupling was blamed on the shift to factory work engineered for mass production in which one doesn't have the satisfaction the craftsman had in seeing somethinf from start to finish. Certainly, the union mentality, from what I've seen of it assumes there is not connection within work itself and strives to fill the void by convincing workers the union will provide that.
John Barnes
50%
50%
John Barnes,
User Rank: Moderator
11/28/2014 | 11:22:41 PM
Re: I feel like a
Nemos,  the possibility of the tool is there whether we use it or not.  Part of the problem is that as we advance further in capability, the "employee" side of the job (making a living wage, feeling useful, having a place in the economy) and the "producer" side of the job (adding value to the collective work, achieving the common purpose, having a claim on the employer) are rapidly decoupling and are almost unrelated to each other. Traditionally their tight coupling was how people were induced to do jobs they did not want to do, and to move from jobs where they were not good to jobs where they were. As the coupling gets looser, those connections break down, and it's less and less clear why people should work at a bottom-rung job or seek a higher one.
John Barnes
50%
50%
John Barnes,
User Rank: Moderator
11/28/2014 | 11:10:22 PM
Re: Smart way to approach robotics
This approach of involving the robots to only assist the humans will cerrtainly improve the future of robotics

Tzubair, even Rethink freely admits that Baxter will probably take away jobs at the very lowest skill levels. The argument is just that those were not just entry level jobs, but "enter and never go any further" jobs, where workers were dead-ended the first day of work, and that by doing those jobs better than a person can, Baxter creates more work for peoplewho must use judgment and brains. It's a very attractive argument and at least in some of the early adopters it seems to be working out -- but whether it's true or not, and for how many people, and how much, all remains to be seen.
John Barnes
50%
50%
John Barnes,
User Rank: Moderator
11/28/2014 | 11:06:09 PM
Re: Smart way to approach robotics
Well, just to begin with, collaborative robotics + 3D printing = custom fit everything for everybody, e.g. tools made for your exact hand and grip (I would bet that would come in sports equipment first), toys shaped to a child's interests/skills/development needs, etc.
John Barnes
50%
50%
John Barnes,
User Rank: Moderator
11/28/2014 | 11:02:55 PM
Re: Smart way to approach robotics
Michelle, I think it depends on which kind of boredom we're talking about. Memorizing multiplication tables, playing scales, varying-sentence drills while learning languages all lead somewhere, and if they're done with attention you get done sooner.  But Charlie Bucket's father's job (screwing caps onto toothpaste tubes) emphatically leads nowhere and getting better at it is irrelevant. 

Whether we need completely mindnumbing repetitive tasks for people who can't handle anything else is an interesting question; anyone you ask, "Would you like that job?" seems to say no, though. It may be self-selected (the people who would like it are too dumb to understand the question), but I think there really are jobs too dull for a human being -- and there are provably jobs too dull for a human being to do well.
Michelle
50%
50%
Michelle,
User Rank: Ninja
11/28/2014 | 10:38:18 PM
Re: Smart way to approach robotics
Baxter sounds like the perfect bordem buster. I don't looking forward to the future where people can spend more time on interesting tasks. I wonder what long term effects that could have on humans. There is value in working through the really boring stuff to get to the interesting bits.
Nemos
50%
50%
Nemos,
User Rank: Strategist
11/28/2014 | 6:50:44 PM
Re: Smart way to approach robotics
"l to change production and take it to a new level"

Indeed, but the question should be in which level ? and before that we have to answer what "we"(the workers approach) are going to do ?
Nemos
50%
50%
Nemos,
User Rank: Strategist
11/28/2014 | 6:46:48 PM
I feel like a
To be honest while reading the article I felt a bit like a dumb person. I believe the comparison between robots and humans is out of question and creates a very strange feeling at the same time.
Page 1 / 2   >   >>
Slideshows
Strategies You Need to Make Digital Transformation Work
Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Writer,  11/25/2019
Commentary
Enterprise Guide to Data Privacy
Cathleen Gagne, Managing Editor, InformationWeek,  11/22/2019
News
Watch Out: 7 Digital Disruptions for IT Leaders
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor, Enterprise Apps,  11/18/2019
White Papers
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
Video
Current Issue
Getting Started With Emerging Technologies
Looking to help your enterprise IT team ease the stress of putting new/emerging technologies such as AI, machine learning and IoT to work for their organizations? There are a few ways to get off on the right foot. In this report we share some expert advice on how to approach some of these seemingly daunting tech challenges.
Slideshows
Flash Poll