The Humanity in a Factory Robot

Field NotesThe Frontier

A quick note about this section

The creative process is one of constant discovery. You’re always looking for new ways of seeing, thinking and doing. Along the way, some things stand out and we put them in our Field Notes. This is a collection of ideas, places, people and things that we’ve found that we think are worth sharing and that all loosely fit within the theme of the issue.

Baxter is a red robot with two large arms and a screen featuring two eyes. "Not a week goes by when somebody doesn't comment to me”, told Jim Lawton, Chief Marketing Officer at Rethink Robotics, “‘Wow, I love working with your robot. They're so engaging and friendly and I just love the smile".

Rethink Robotics, the company behind Baxter has worked to build personality within him to make him as approachable as he can be for factory workers. Baxter was designed with a new kind of premise in mind: What if a robot was created that didn’t replace humans on the factory floor but assisted them? Baxter is almost like an Apple product— it’s simple and intuitive to use. Robots in factories are usually frightening. They’re fenced in, and if a worker comes to close, that interaction could be fatal. “If you watch someone standing near a robot when it first starts to move, they will back up because they don’t know what’s going to happen and they know that this big, scary thing could actually kill them. And so for us, an important part of having robots provide value for companies is that rather than being repulsed by the robot, they have to be attracted by the robot, the robot needs to be more engaging and more touchable and “friendlier and something that I feel safe around”, explained Jim. A lot of thought went into the problem of making people feel safe and comfortable around a robot.

What if a robot was created that didn’t replace humans on the factory floor but assisted them?

There are a few elements that make Baxter ‘human’. The first is artificial anticipatory intelligence. The robot glances where its arms are about go before they physically move. Humans naturally do this and by making the robot act this way, factory workers working alongside Baxter can feel safer, knowing that they have a way to tell what the robot is going to do. Another feature that had to be carefully designed and considered was the face. The team had two extremes to deal with. The first was simply putting a human face on the display. The problem with that is cognitive dissonance: the robot would look exactly like a human. “It’s a picture of a human up on the display. But it’s not a human, it’s a robot and it’s operating like a robot, not operating like human”, explains Lawton. They were equally concerned about using a colour that pulled people in towards the robot, making them feel comfortable to interact, not push them away. They settled on red to perform these requirements and it was the colour that tested best.

baxter the robot 1

However, doing the opposite, making a cartoon face, doesn’t make the robot more approachable: “On the other end of the continuum, you can end up with robots with faces that look very much cartoonish or look like a toy. And that also makes me uncomfortable [as a person] and that also makes our customers uncomfortable because they’re running manufacturing plants that have to deliver value and meet expectations for Wall Street and so it [Baxter] needs to look purposeful and reliable and consistent in the way it behaves, not like a toy, or like a child. So thinking through and evaluating people’s responses to various categories of types of faces that we could put there was really important to us and we think [it was] really important in the way in which people embrace the technology… with the goal being that [the robots] need to be more engaging and pull people in.” explained Lawton.

baxter the robot 2

A key element that makes Baxter unique is his learning mechanism. Baxter is being deployed in factories that don’t have engineers or teams of programmers that can troubleshoot problems and find new ways to deploy him. And so, Baxter learns in a very human way: by example. “I’ve got a young son and when I first showed him how to tie his shoes, I got behind him and I reached around him and I grabbed his hands and I showed him how to tie his shoes”, described Jim. Just by grabbing Baxter’s wrist, it realizes someone is trying to teach him something new. A factory worker can just guide him where to go. When they touch the wrist, Baxter assumes “zero-gravity mode”, he compensates for his weight so it’s easy for someone to move his arm.

Baxter is being deployed in factories that don’t have engineers or teams of programmers that can troubleshoot problems and find new ways to deploy him. And so, Baxter learns in a very human way: by example.

Colour was also a considered factor. “We had a lot of discussion around the colour. A few different things played into it. If you go into most manufacturing environments, there is very little that is red. Most equipment is either some form of industrial, battleship grey or some kind of very bold, alarming colour like bright yellow and we wanted to not evoke emotions that those things do. Like yellow, there’s about to be an emergency… fire hydrants are yellow. And we certainly didn’t want to convey battleship grey. We were looking for a warmer, iconic colour that is distinctive but kind of pulled people in and this was the colour that tested best”, explained Lawton.

Lawton described that allowing anyone to be able to “program” Baxter enables all factory workers to become makers and engage with their creativity. If they have an idea on how to deploy Baxter, they can just act on it. The tool are there for them to use. All they have to do to enable their idea is to hold Baxter by the wrist and guide him. “We’ve made it so that if you’ve got an idea about how you can use this robot in a different way, you’re empowered to go do it because you can grab it and show it. You don’t have to go hire a consultant who comes in and reprograms the code that you don’t know how to perform yourself” remarked Jim.

baxter the robot 3

It seems that even on the factory floor, where for over a century technology has been dehumanizing workers, new advances in the way robots can work and the way we design them are allowing people to muster their problem solving skills and become empowered in the way that technology can help them.

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