Computing Community Consortium Blog

The goal of the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is to catalyze the computing research community to debate longer range, more audacious research challenges; to build consensus around research visions; to evolve the most promising visions toward clearly defined initiatives; and to work with the funding organizations to move challenges and visions toward funding initiatives. The purpose of this blog is to provide a more immediate, online mechanism for dissemination of visioning concepts and community discussion/debate about them.

“A Robot With a Reassuring Touch”

September 18th, 2012 / in research horizons, Research News / by Erwin Gianchandani

The New York Times’s John Markoff has penned another article on robotics today, this time featuring the efforts of Rodney Brooks and Rethink Robotics to engineer robots that work directly with humans in the workplace:

Rodney A. Brooks with Baxter, a robot he developed with an array of safety mechanisms and sensors [image courtesy Evan McGlinn for The New York Times].If you grab the hand of a two-armed robot named Baxter, it will turn its head and a pair of cartoon eyes — displayed on a tablet-size computer-screen “face” — will peer at you with interest.


The sensation that Baxter conveys is not creepy, but benign, perhaps even disarmingly friendly. And that is intentional.


Baxter, the first product of Rethink Robotics, an ambitious start-up company in a revived manufacturing district here, is a significant bet that robots in the future will work directly with humans in the workplace.


That is a marked shift from today’s machines, which are kept safely isolated from humans, either inside glass cages or behind laser-controlled “light curtains,” because they move with Terminator-like speed and accuracy and could flatten any human they encountered.


By contrast, Baxter, which comes encased in plastic and has a nine-foot “wingspan,” is relatively slow and imprecise in the way it moves. And it has an elaborate array of safety mechanisms and sensors to protect the human workers it assists.


Here in a brick factory that was once one of the first electrified manufacturing sites in New England, Rodney A. Brooks, the legendary roboticist who is Rethink’s founder, proves its safety by placing his head in the path of Baxter’s arm while it moves objects on an assembly line [more following the link].


The arm senses his head and abruptly stops moving with a soft clunk. Dr. Brooks, unfazed, points out that the arm is what roboticists call “compliant”: intended to sense unexpected obstacles and adjust itself accordingly.


The $22,000 robot that Rethink will begin selling in October is the clearest evidence yet that robotics is more than a laboratory curiosity or a tool only for large companies with vast amounts of capital. The company is betting it can broaden the market for robots by selling an inexpensive machine that can collaborate with human workers, the way the computer industry took off in the 1980s when the prices of PCs fell sharply and people without programming experience could start using them right out of the box.


“It feels like a true Macintosh moment for the robot world,” said Tony Fadell, the former Apple executive who oversaw the development of the iPod and the iPhone.



In contrast to the fixed repetitive tasks performed by today’s robot arms and hands, scientists at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Washington have built several prototype hands with pliable fingers that can move as quickly as the humans’.


The research group has set up collaborative arrangements with the Mexican factories, known as maquiladoras where they will be able to test their new robots.


“Despite decades of automation, there are relatively few types of tasks that have been automated,” said Emanuel Todorov, a cognitive scientist at Washington.


This is now changing rapidly as a new wave of manufacturing robots appears, driven by the collapsing cost of computing and the rapid emergence of inexpensive sensors that give robots new powers of vision and touch.


“The big hot button in the robotics industry is to get people and robots to work together,” said David Bourne, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University. “The big push is to make robots safe for people to work around.”


Rethink itself has made a significant effort to design a robot that mimics biological systems. The concept is called behavioral robotics, a design approach that was pioneered by Dr. Brooks in the 1990s and was used by NASA to build an early generation of vehicles that explored Mars.


Dr. Brooks first proposed the idea in 1989 in a paper titled “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control: A Robot Invasion of the Solar System.” Rather than sending a costly system that had a traditional and expensive artificial intelligence based control system, fleets of inexpensive systems could explore like insects. It helped lead to Sojourner, an early Mars vehicle.


The next generation of robots will increasingly function as assistants to human workers, freeing them for functions like planning, design and troubleshooting…

Read the full story here.

And see an earlier Markoff write-up on what robotics means for the future of manufacturing and distribution — and the overall impact on the nation’s economy.

(Contributed by Erwin Gianchandani, CCC Director)

“A Robot With a Reassuring Touch”

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