The Robotic Incursion

There’s a new robot out there called Baxter.  Created by Rethink Robotics, Baxter has a humanoid torso, two robotic arms, and a face-like display screen.

None of that is especially ground-breaking, but Baxter offers more.  According to his website, Baxter is designed to work cheek-by-jowl with humans, cheerfully doing the endlessly repetitive jobs that used to drive former assembly-line workers nuts.  Baxter’s “head” is equipped with 360-degree sonar and a camera to allow him to detect humans.  Baxter also has “behavior-based intelligence” and gizmos in his arms that “feel” when he bumps into objects — or people.  The website also says Baxter is easily programmed and integrated into the workforce.

Oh, and here’s the kicker:  Baxter costs only $22,000.  That’s less than the salaries of most industrial workers.  And Baxter doesn’t require employers to worry about absenteeism or tardiness, he doesn’t take sick days or file workers compensation lawsuits, he doesn’t need to be insured or provided with a pension or vacation days, and he won’t steal from the supply room, grouse about the boss at the break table, or try to unionize the workplace.  Is it any wonder that Baxter has been greeted by great sales to the manufacturing industry?

Baxter is marketed as “a compelling alternative to low-cost offshoring for manufacturers of all sizes.”   That is, you can buy Baxter and keep your plant in Dayton, Joliet, or Scranton rather than moving production capacity to China, because when you factor in shipping costs, customs duties, and other offshore expenses — to say nothing of bad PR — Baxter is competitive with those low-cost alternatives.  Of course, Baxter also will be taking away American assembly line jobs, but they were likely gone, anyway.  At least the jobs of providing maintenance for a workforce of Baxters, and the white-collar jobs related to selling and shipping the goods Baxter manufactures, will stay in the U.S.A.

Baxter is just one example of the robotic incursion into the American workforce that is already here and that will become more apparent with each passing year.  Robotics has long been part of the manufacturing world, and now it is primed to move into the service industry.  One day soon you’ll walk into a fast-food restaurant and be surprised when a Baxter-like bot takes your order, prepares your cheeseburger and fries, and hands it to you with a touch-screen smile.