Robots are Software, not Hardware

Robots have fascinated humans for years. While some think these machines are limited to only simple tasks or the silver screen, I got an inside look at the robotic workers being developed by Rethink Robotics. Jim Lawton, the Chief Marketing Officer, showed me the two current robots, Baxter and Sawyer, which Rethink produces. These robots are automated workers that are able to “learn” and preform precise tasks that can be done alone or in collaboration with a human.

Traditional robot design revolves around automating simple tasks. While this is beneficial for corporations, these tasks do not usually deal with menial labor. Instead these robots deal with production, and once that method of production changes, they become obsolete. At Rethink, robots are designed with software that allows them to adapt to new tasks, and have multiple functions to adjust with changes in demand. Not only that, but the menial labor tasks that Rethink is tackling deal with precision, which prior automation could not handle. With their advance software, Rethink is able to create a robot that can do a multitude of precise, menial labor tasks.  

So why is the software so important? Well consider any Apple product you have ever come across. Apple designed an operating platform that can be used across all its devices. An iPhone can do almost all the same tasks a MacBook can, due to the same OS existing on the devices. At Rethink they take the same approach. They developed software that can be preprogramed onto any robot they build, and will allow the robots to interact with user the same way. Anyone familiar with a Baxter model will be able to use a Sawyer model of robot and vice versa. Also if Rethink develops a new model of robot, the software allows a familiar user to quickly adjust to it, and allows the robot to learn, preform, and remember tasks that it has been previously delegated.

Despite the fact that these impressive robots have been produced, the market for such a product is still developing. While domestically, the need for menial labor has not changed drastically, internationally the market is shifting rapidly. In China, combinations of high labor turnover rates and growing wage rates have left management searching for a new solution.

How does Rethink cope with a developing market then? Well it is simple. Rethink has to enable change. Rethink has to take the Steve Jobs approach and design a product that the customer needs, not what the customer wants. It is similar to the Henry Ford dilemma; if you asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse, not a car. If you ask a company that has a lot of menial labor what they want they will demand cheaper and fast human workers, not a robot. Rethink has found a market that has potential, and must be able to create an adaptable product for it. This is why their software is so valuable. It allows rethink to adjust to what management needs in a worker.

Rethink also has been creative, which is necessary in a developing market. Being creative allows Rethink not to be constrained by traditional views of robots. Instead of viewing robots as a tool that can only do one automated task, Rethink focused on the software of their robots. By doing so they have created robots that are unique in the fact that they can adapt to changes, and do not become obsolete when tasks change. This reconsideration of the traditional view of robots allows Rethink to adjust to changes in a changing market. Creativity is key in a developing market, because it allows for disruption that is adaptable. It does not limit a viewpoint to traditional perspectives, and allows for new solutions to problems.

Rethink is a fascinating company and one that should be watched. The amazing robots that they have already developed are mind blowing and the possibilities of the future are endless. Rethink is also a living example of how creativity can eliminate barriers in thought and revolutionize the traditional view of certain tools or methods of work. Simply by refocusing their efforts on software, Rethink has developed a robot that is unique to its past counterparts. The fact that it is an enabler in a developing market is beneficial, and Rethink has been able to create a solution for a growing market. It will be exciting to keep an eye on Rethink Robotics and the creations it comes up with in the future.    

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See videos of Baxter and Sawyer here