American workers already know that they face tough competition for job openings. With a global economy, more jobs are outsourced to cheaper labor overseas. But the competition could get even stiffer.
On Tuesday, Boston, Mass.-based Rethink Robotics unveiled a humanoid robot "Baxter" that will go on sale in October, according to the BBC. Although the company says that the robots are not intended to replace human workers, "Baxter" can be trained to directly handle manual assignments and carry out simple on-screen computer tasks. As a result, Baxter can execute a range of duties such as loading, machine operation, light assembly, sorting and inspecting, and packing and unpacking.
Priced at $22,000, the robots will cost a few thousand more than the annual salary of a minimum wage worker (about $15,000 based on a 40-hour workweek). But the pricetag for a Baxter is far less than for other robots on the market, the cost of which is usually in the range of $40,000, according to RobotWorx, an industrial automation vendor.
Currently there are 1.1 million working robots in the world, according to International Federation of Robotics. But what makes Baxter different -- and potentially threatening to human workers -- is that it is equipped to work alongside humans, and interact with us. Baxter will be able to communicate and follow commands.
Indeed, while roboticists have been able to create robots in the past, the founder of Rethink Robotics, Rodney Brooks, told the BBC that "what's proven more difficult is inventing robots that ... are able to inherently understand and adapt to their environment."
In addition to these new abilities, the "Baxter" robots will need just 30 minutes of training to understand a new task. Yet it won't forget what it's learned and "can be moved to different and varying tasks over the course of a day, week and month," its manufacturer says.
"Baxter" will be encased in plastic, will offer a 9-foot "wingspan" and an array of safety mechanisms, according to The New York Times. One of which, called the "e-stop," will automatically shut down the machine.
Will Baxter take jobs from America's workers?
So far, the robots are being promoted more as a supporting actors, one whose present existence without the lead actors -- aka humans -- is unthinkable.
One workplace, Vanguard Plastics, already has introduced a prototype into its workplace. In an interview with the Times, Vanguard President Chris Budnick said that Baxter only made the workplace efficient thanks to its cooperation with the current staff. The Southington, Conn.-based company assigned the Baxters mainly to menial production-line jobs, which enabled the company to amp up its higher-level work.
Budnick dismissed the notion that Baxter posed any threat to his workers.
"Our folks loved it and they felt very comfortable with it," he said. "Even the older folks didn't perceive it as a threat."
Maybe so. But the automobile industry has long employed robots and now has 80 percent of its work done by non-human machines, according to the BBC.
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