Baxter is an all-purpose robot that does not depend on elaborate programming to perform a very limited task. Ordinary employees can teach Baxter without special training.
(Baxter Robot Learns By Doing video)
The small manufacturer's new worker, Baxter, is six feet tall, 300 pounds, and a robot. For a hulking machine, Baxter is remarkably expressive. A pair of eyes on the screen that serves as a face stare down as the robot picks up plastic components, look concerned when it makes a mistake, and direct its glance at its next task when one is finished. It's cute. But the real point of these expressions is that they let workers nearby know instantly if Baxter is performing appropriately, and they provide clues to what it is about to do next. Even more amazing, when Baxter is done with one task, a fellow worker can simply show the robot how to start another. "Almost anyone, literally, can in very short order be shown how to program it," says Chris Budnick, president of Vanguard Plastics. "It's a matter of a couple of minutes."
The idea for Baxter came about, iRobot co-founder Rodney Brooks says, while iRobot was searching for a suitable manufacturing partner for its one of its products. He remembers marveling at the fact that so much electronics manufacturing was still done by hand and how much of this kind of manufacturing had moved to low-wage economies in Asia. "I thought, 'Are we going to be doing this in 500 years—still chasing cheap labor? There's got to be a different way,'" he says.
The "wheelies" from Stephen Barr's excellent 1960 short story Callahan and the Wheelies were able to learn from people. As I recall, they learned to recharge themselves at standard wall sockets by watching people.