Automation: Robot, can you do me a favor?

Ever since the first caveman picked up a rock, our relationship with our tools has always been a symbiotic one; tools help us acquire more wealth and leisure, and in turn, we invent more tools. In the modern age, we come to develop a love-hate relationship with them. Common household tools like hammers and drills help us build faster; cars help us travel farther. On the other hand, the same tools lead us to a society of high-unemployment. How should we balance the tools’ ability to rise our standard of living, and their ability to replace us?

No where is this dilemma better captured than in the new robot named Baxter:

Baxter, is six feet tall, 300 pounds, and a robot. For a hulking machine, Baxter is remarkably expressive. A pair of eyes on the screen that serves as a face stare down as the robot picks up plastic components, look concerned when it makes a mistake, and direct its glance at its next task when one is finished. It’s cute. But the real point of these expressions is that they let workers nearby know instantly if Baxter is performing appropriately, and they provide clues to what it is about to do next. Even more amazing, when Baxter is done with one task, a fellow worker can simply show the robot how to start another (via MIT Technology Review).

Is this the future? An interesting aspect of Baxter, is its ease-of-programming, which will change the human-robot interaction equation, and bring on the table the possibility of programming a robot without much technical background. This feature will certainly facilitate the wide-spread use of robotic technology. But will it eliminate manufacturing jobs?

The Fordson tractor introduced in 1917

The Fordson tractor introduced in 1917 was the first mass-produced tractor.

Rodney Brooks of Rethink Robotics, the company behind Baxter, uses the best analogy to answer this question: he says that Baxter will boost manufacturing productivity, the same way the tractor boosted agricultural productivity. And we should listen to him, because this man has prophetically predicted the evolution of robotics to date – just watch his TED talk from 2003.

Like any new technology, tractors were unpopular at first, but the benefit outweighed the cost so much that it became obvious for every farmer to own one. Check out this list of nine reasons to own a tractor, from a 1926 publication of The Oil Pull Magazine (Vol. 4, No. 3), and while you read, think about how well this list lends itself to robots and manufacturing:

A recent contest for the best paper on the subject, ‘The Advantage of Tractor Farming’ was won by W. C. Wood, a student in agricultural engineering at the University of Saskatchewan.

In summing up the situation, after a thorough and interesting discourse on his subject, Mr. Wood gives the following nine salient points:

1. It has a place on most western and prairie farms.

2. It makes possible a great saving in overhead costs of farm power.

3.  Tractors can respond to rush demands and get the work done at the right time.

4. The modern tractor is as dependable for work as the horse.

5. The tractor will greatly reduce the man hours for field work.

6.  A tractor can be operated in the field, by a boy, if an older person can keep check on the machine.

7.  The worst enemies of the tractor are: rust, wear, vibration and DUST. Careful selection of the tractor will make all of these practically negligible.

8. The tractor gives time for gardening and home beautification which are highly remunerative as well as doing much to keep the whole family healthy and happy. It also gives time for the business side of farming and recreation.

9. The tractor is a real boon to mixed farming and permanent agriculture, by keeping the length of the working day down to a reasonable number of hours, while at the same time, the total farm production is increased. (via

The key point here is that tools should be adding to our quality of life, and not take away from it. Tools should be an extension of our capabilities. The same can be said about software tools. We design our software with the philosophy that it should extend the user’s capabilities just like Baxter (i.e. consistency checking, auto-backup, ease-of-programming), it should be easy to program/customize and blend into your normal day-to-day activities flawlessly. It is our goal to make Proqur a multiplier software, not a substitute software.

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