The Eyes are Windows to the Robot’s Soul
Bad things can happen when humans misunderstand machines. Airplanes can crash: A pilot, grappling with a machine doing something he or she doesn’t understand, can insert erroneous inputs that the airplane fights against, a vicious cycle interrupted only when the ground intervenes. Airplane designers work extremely hard to make sure their machines keep the humans informed, and that they have ultimate authority over the system.
It’s not this way everywhere. In factories, the most powerful manufacturing robots are segregated from humans. Fast Industrial robots are not set up to work alongside inconsistent and fragile humans. Most robots do a poor job of telegraphing to humans what they’re going to do next. People can be surprised. It’s dangerous.
One response? Baxter, a low-cost ($22,000) industrial robot by Rethink Robotics. It has a flat screen for a “head” with eyes on it. Not to see with, but to be seen. The eyes animate to show where the robot is “looking,” even though its real eyes are in its fingers, and to show “reactions” like assent or confusion. I watched the robot do simple tasks and it never once surprised me. The “eyes” betrayed its intentions. Baxter will also back off if it bumps into a person.
The effort Rethink put into making Baxter a good partner illustrate a real need when building complex systems. Machines have their gifts, humans have theirs. Companies that work on the interface between the two may find their products more welcomed by workers, and purchasers.
Rebooting Manufacturing (MIT Technology Review)
Rethink Robotics launches its first product: Baxter (Boston.com)
Rethink delivers Baxter the friendly worker robot / video (Engadget)
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