How robots are eating the last of America’s—and the world’s—traditional manufacturing jobs

“There may not be a place for humans in the future, if we’re really successful,” Brooks told filmmaker Errol Morris back when he was just a roboticist at MIT. Since then, Brooks has given up his tenured academic job, founded and then stepped away from iRobot, maker of the Roomba automatic vacuum cleaner, and now is at Rethink Robotics.

Most industrial robots are large, expensive (costing $100,000 or more), and so hazardous to humans that they must be kept separate from people by plexiglass cages. They are also expensive to maintain and difficult to direct. Over its lifetime, the care and programming of an industrial robot can easily cost its owner two or three times its initial price tag.

But Baxter, as I discovered at that party at MIT, is ridiculously easy to program. Like information technology before it, robots won’t become ubiquitous until they’re easy to use, says Brooks, and that’s what’s so innovative about the products of Rethink Robotics. “In general, if you look at the factory floor, ease of use of equipment has not been a focus of attention,” says Brooks. “But it has been in the IT industry, and we’d not be where we are if laptops weren’t easy to use. An ordinary factory worker can train Baxter to do a task in just minutes.”

In factories, managers typically will not invest in any automation that requires more than two years to pay for itself, when compared to some other solution, like paying a human to do it. But thanks to some very clever engineering, Baxter only costs $22,000. In the US, a person working full time at minimum wage makes only $15,080 a year.