Mind Matters News and Analysis on Natural and Artificial Intelligence

People-friendly robots company shuts down

The “cobots,” robots that can work with people, got the pink slip—for now
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Sawyer (left) 2015 and Baxter (right) 2011/Rethink Robotics

The idea behind Rethink Robotics’s “cobots” was cutting-edge:

Rethink was founded in 2008 by Rodney Brooks and Ann Whitaker. It introduced its first product, the Baxter robot, in 2011; followed by Sawyer, a smaller, faster version, in 2015. The robots were intended to usher in a new age of automation; one where machines would work safely next to humans, rather than confined to their own sections on the factory floor.

Both Baxter and Sawyer used animated faces to communicate with their co-workers, and could be programmed without specialist knowledge. Workers could simply guide the robots’ dextrous arms to perform a specific task and the bots would remember what to do. This ease of use, combined with the bots’ safety features, also made them popular in research labs. James Vincent, “Pioneering creator of collaborative ‘cobots’ Rethink Robotics shuts down” at The Verge

No one proclaimed Baxter and Sawyer a technical failure. The firm that built them succumbed to the conventional business problems that fell many promising high-tech startups: Not enough capital to ride out the early slow years, disappointing sales in a tight market dominated by a few near-monopolies, and in this case, a failed buyout deal. A recent post-mortem of 256 failed startups found,

Startups who have succumbed to the cash challenges were promising or either had good products but failed to grow before the financial challenges.

It’s not only that startups need money to build or maintain their product but in most of the cases, they need money to outpace and outplace their competitors, the established institutions like Amazon, Google, Facebook and other tech giants.

In our postmortem, we have come across many startups who could not grow facing tough challenges from Google, Facebook and others alike. “Why do startups fail? A postmortem of 256 failed startups.” at Hackernoon

Anyway, the idea is far from dead:

Part of the appeal of cobots is that they are supposedly easier to program and use than other robots, which is expected to encourage adoption of automation among small and midsize enterprises. Since they don’t require much fixed infrastructure, cobots can be repurposed or even moved for small-batch, high-variability functions in manufacturing, machine tending, and packaging.

Baxter at work/Rethink Robotics

If employees are constantly retooling the robots to get the job done better or faster, it stands to reason that they would not need much fixed infrastructure; the key element in their surrounding “infrastructure” is mobile and fully bipedal:

Collaborative robotics is still a relatively small portion of the overall industrial automation market, but it is growing fast. The market for collaborative robots is experiencing a 56.84% compound annual growth rate and could reach $4.28 billion by 2023, according to Markets and Markets and the Robotics Industry Association (RIA).

Traditional robotics providers initially scoffed at cobots, but ABB, FANUC, KUKA, and Yaskawa have all released collaborative models of their own. The leader in this space is Odense, Denmark-based Universal Robots A/S, which has more than 50% market share and last month announced the sale of its 25,000th robot.Eugene Demaitre, “Cobot Maker Rethink Robotics Shuts Down” at Robotics Business Review

Incidentally, Rethink Robotics co-founder Rodney Brooks was a co-founder of iRobot, the developer of the successful Roomba vacuum cleaner, a product often cited as an example of a robotic aid to independent senior living.

In short, robotics is a business like any other. The individual good idea requires a business plan that can survive savage years in the wilderness before the buyout.

That said, we certainly haven’t heard the last of the cobot, which may be one of the ideas that make robotics practical for everyday business.

See also: Can a stuffed toy turn into a robot?

and

How do robots “care”?