A Boston start-up called Rethink Robotics wants to bring robotic assistants to your workplace of the near future to interact with you, to do things for you, and to not take your job away from you. (We'll come back to the last part in a minute.)
Rethink's first robot, Baxter, will be released next month to a scared, anxious workforce. His total, one-time retail cost: $22,000. That's a hell of a lot cheaper than you with your pesky health plans, sick days, kid's noon-time school events, and free dry cleaning. Baxter requires only occasional maintenance, and he doesn't give a damn about office politics or cake in the break room. He's going to be the Rudy of the workplace. If only you could put out 110% like Baxter here, bosses across America will say, we could get some real work done! Sigh. Here is your future nemesis in action!
Perhaps sensing the unease around robotic assistants, Rethink is telling us that Baxter is meant a friendly, helpful presence to human employees instead of a job-stealing jerk:
Baxter can be "trained" (Rethink dislikes the term "programmed") by simply being walked through whatever action pattern is desired. All the models feature prominent safety and interaction signals, and they are equipped with an emergency shutdown override. Initial applications will likely be in low-level assembly-type jobs.
However, that doesn't mean existing employees will be laid off; rather, they will handle more specialized tasks that the robots can't.
So you won't get laid off, and you can initiate the shutdown override sequence if Baxter gets on your nerves after fetching a batch of 25 collated reports at the copy machine. If only you could do this with some of your human co-workers, right? Now that's the American dream.
So where is this all going? Should U.S. workers fear they'll get booted in favor of their booted-up former assistant? Hey, it happens in human-human world, why not in human-robot world? Plus, as I've said, Baxter is cheaper and less whiny than us humans, and he's not going to display tacky personal items in his cubicle for the boss to tell him to take home.
Be nice, and don't "train" him to do everything wrong so the boss sticks him in the storage closet for "maintenance," okay? And it's okay to put him on the carpool van roof for the drive to Canada.