A new industrial robot designed to be adaptable, safe, and easy to program could take over a number of relatively unskilled tasks on production lines, helping businesses to compete with cheap human labor provided in other countries. Dubbed Baxter, the robot is designed and produced by Rethink Robotics, a Boston-based company founded by former MIT professor Rodney Brooks — unlike conventional robots used in manufacturing, it can work side-by-side with humans, without the need for any sort of protective cage.

Baxter features a screen with humanoid facial expressions

According to an article in MIT's Technology Review, Baxter features a screen with humanoid facial expressions, allowing it to indicate to operators that it is busy, confused, or ready to move on to a new task. Encased in plastic, its large limbs move at a relatively slow pace, and are designed to stop immediately upon any unexpected contact — Brooks reportedly demonstrates the unit's safety features by placing his head in Baxter's path, receiving just a light tap when it hits him. Most importantly, the robot is capable of learning new tasks in a very short amount of time, using a set of cameras to build up a profile of target objects and allowing human operators to guide its arms through the required motions.

Rethink lays great stress on Baxter's potential to revolutionize aspects of US manufacturing, emphasizing that the robot itself is "Made in America." While the $22,000 price tag may seem steep, it dramatically undercuts the costs of conventional, custom-built production line robots, most of which require complex reconfiguration to adapt to new tasks. Check out the video below to see Baxter in action.