Once largely the province of science fiction, roboticss already permeate our daily lives. We may not realize it, as science fiction novels, television, and film have shaped our expectations of the appearance and function of robots. And those popular images of robots – machines like Wall-E, C-3P0, or the Terminator, do not yet exist. We do not live in a society where robots are as common in every household as silverware. However, not only are we headed there, already, robots of astounding functionality are in use around the world. Moreover, many corporations are racing to not only develop robots that meet our preconceived notions of what a robot should be, but also make them as ubiquitous as cellphones. Governments are striving to enhance their viability as weapons. In addition, academics are vigorously searching for singularity – the point at which robot intelligence will outstrip human intelligence.
Fueling all of this activity is the exciting field of robotics, which promises – or threatens – to transform our world in just a few short decades. In this article, we will look at, 1) definition of robotics, 2) history of robotics technology, 3) trends in robotics research, 3) semi-autonomous vs. autonomous robots, 4) robotics in industry and government, 5) consumer robotics, 6) the future development of robotics technology, 7) the benefits of robotics technology, and 8) the ethical implications of robotics.
DEFINITION OF ROBOTICS
Robotics is the cross-disciplinary study of the design, development, and deployment of robots, which involves electronics, engineering, computer science, bioengineering, physics, philosophy, and psychology. We then must define “robots”, which is no easy task. In 1979, the Robot Institute of America defined robots as:
“A robot is a reprogrammable, multifunctional manipulator designed to move material, parts, tools or specialized devices through variable programmed motions for the performance of a variety of tasks.”
Is a car then a robot? The Oxford Dictionary defines a robot as:
“A machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer.”
The first part is good, but the second part is clearly reflective of our popular conception of robots, and is contradicted by new biological tissue-based “bio-robots”, among other new developments. As the technology evolves, so too must the definition. For our purposes, we will define robots using the first part of the Oxford Dictionary definition, which is inclusive of not only new developments in robotics technology, but also the historical development of robots and robotics.
A HISTORY OF ROBOTICS TECHNOLOGY
Science historians generally credit the first robot to Archytas, an ancient Greek scholar and contemporary of Plato, who, in 350 BC, developed an artificial flying device whose form mimicked a bird’s form and whose propulsion was powered by steam. Approximately 100 years later, the Greek inventor Ctesibus created automated clocks powered by water. These early inventions paved the way for further exploration of automated machines, with further advancements throughout the centuries leading to famed inventor Leonardo DaVinci’s robot – an armored knight – in 1495; the Digesting Duck (robot) of French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739; and Swiss inventor Pierre Jacquet Droz’s animated dolls, built in the late 18th century. Most of the robots of the time were built to amuse and entertain European royalty; Droz’s dolls are notable for being programmable and a precursor to the modern computer.
In 1822, Charles Babbage, an English scholar, invented (but never built) what is considered the first computer: a machine based on levers and gears, rather than the then-recently created electric circuit (by the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta in 1800). As computers are key to most robots in service today, as well as major fields of robotics study, it is worth noting here. Further advancements in mathematics, physics, mechanics, and electrical engineering over the next century and a half years led to the development of remote controlled robots. The term robot itself (from Czech writer Karel Capek’s play R.U.R. or Rossum’s Universal Robots) was popularized by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, whose fiction has been influential on robo-ethics, and the term “artificial intelligence.”
The 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s saw the rise of automated machines introduced for commercial manufacturing purposes as well as significant scientific explorations in artificial intelligence and biomechanics. However, beginning in the 1980s and early 1990s, robotics began to seep outside of the lab and into the hands of consumers, notably through LEGO robotics kits, which were simultaneously introduced to retail stores and classrooms. With the explosion of the Internet in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, came a similar frenzied commercial drive to adapt robotics technologies, such as sensing, thinking, and acting, into electronically powered consumer products, thus blurring the line between what we think of as robots and actual robots. However, the Internet, and more specifically, the advent of the Digital or Information Age, also accelerated work on the development of service robots, military robots, research robots, and other machines strictly defined as robots.
TRENDS IN ROBOTICS RESEARCH
Because robotics involves so many disciplines, approaches, and goals, there are dozens of different branches of robotics. They include, but are not limited to:
- Aerial robotics: the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, commonly known as drones);
- Artificial intelligence: the development of self-thinking machines;
- Bio-robotics: the design of robots that emulate biological beings;
- Robot learning: the design and refinement of the way robot programming processes information; and
- Kinematics: the study of motion, in this case applied to robots.
Fundamentally, some of the major trends in robotics research today that encompass most of robotics’ diverse branches include:
- Standardization: the creation of a common robot operating system;
- Miniaturization: which reflects advances in nanotechnology and medical applications for robots;
- Parallel processing: the development of robotics CPUs that mimic the human brain;
- Biological modeling: modeling robotic motion on human and animal motion; and
- Increasing robotic autonomy.
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SEMI-AUTONOMOUS VS. AUTONOMOUS ROBOTS
Robots are either semi-autonomous or autonomous. Semi-autonomous robots are those that are controlled manually by a human, or by their programming. They may be able to learn but that learning has a finite ceiling. Autonomous robots, in contrast, are those that can think, act, and adapt to sensory input. Completely autonomous robots are the ultimate goal of the artificial intelligence branch of robotics. However, while academics make strides towards that end, others work to refine the many semi-autonomous robots active today. Usually, these are found in industry and government, are known as service robots, and are designed to perform a specific function.
ROBOTICS IN INDUSTRY AND GOVERNMENT
Service robots have been utilized in industrial manufacturing processes to automate various phases of production since the 1960s. Most often, these robots are purely functional in design. One of the first industrial robots was an “arm,” created by George Devol in 1961, and used to manufacture auto parts at General Motors. Today, industrial robots have replaced millions of farmers, manufacturers, cargo loaders, and other labor-intensive occupations. Other jobs have arisen in new fields, but another wave of job displacement may arise with the advances in, and increased deployment of, semi-autonomous robots. The ability of service robots to learn and process complex information could lead to the deployment of robots in fields such as precision manufacturing, trucking, accounting, and even writing.
Recent advances in robotics have been fueled in part by medical research and efforts by the medical community to improve the efficiency of healthcare delivery. Robots like Aethon TUG and the Vasteras Giraffe have been deployed in hospitals to deliver medicine and/or medical equipment throughout hospitals, and to enhance the delivery of medicine to homebound patients, respectively. Other examples include the Bestic, a robotic arm that helps delivery food to patients, and the Cosmobot, a robot design to enhance therapy techniques administered to developmentally disabled children.
Robots have also been used increasingly in operations. Robots, such as the ZEUS Robotic Surgical System, have been in use since the late 1990s. Unmanned robotic surgeries have been available to patients since 2006. The burgeoning field of nano-medicine is full of enthusiastic academic researchers devoted to deliver medicine in the body through nano-bots, which would act similar to antibodies. Unlike most robots, these would be made from biological tissue, rather than metal or polymers.
Robotics technologies have also been employed in exoskeletons, to great effect. The firm ReWalk created an exoskeleton that, using sensing technologies, allows paraplegics to walk. It has been approved by the FDA for use, and while it currently costs approximately $70,000, advancements in these technologies as well as computer learning and processing power, may bring the price down in the coming years.
Exoskeletons are not solely the province of medical research. Militaries, especially the U.S. military, have spent a considerable amount of time and money developing exoskeletons for infantry combat use. Such devices would allow soldiers to carry supplies and weapons effortlessly; some might even be capable of flight! They would also allow soldiers a full-range of motion, and be able to operate for long periods without charging. Currently, limitations include cost (as these would need to be produced in bulk to account for hundreds of thousands of soldiers), power limitations, and mobility issues.
However, robots themselves have already been introduced on the battlefield. The U.S. Air Force uses aerial drones for surgical military strikes, and for reconnaissance. Other models of robots are used for ground-level reconnaissance, explosive device assessment and disposal, and equipment transportation. They range in size and form. For example, handheld “throwbots” can be pitched through a window or doorway and use their built-in recording equipment for surveillance. Security robotic systems, like the Packbot or TALON are often equipped with tires or treads to travel to a particular destination and perform a specified task. These models are small enough to be transported in a soldier’s backpack. By contrast, robots like the ACER resemble a bulldozer and are designed for bomb disposal, transportation of weapons, and clearing roadway obstacles.
In 2003, the U.S. Army initially announced a $130 billion program called Future Combat Systems that aimed to deploy armed robots in its military forces. However, the program was canceled in 2009 and its more promising initiatives swept into a general modernization program for brigade combat teams. Currently, the U.S., Britain, Israel, South Korea, and China use semi-autonomous robots in military combat.
Of course, not all robotics applications are used for such serious purposes. Consumer robots have been available as toys, pets, and household implements since the 1980s.
To-date, consumer robots have generally fallen into one of four categories: toys, pets, social robots, and household implements. Starting with LEGO robotics kits, electronics and toy companies have raced each other to introduce viable robotic toys for kids. And beyond those kits, robot toys have proliferated, from the Tomy Verbot and Playskool Alphie of the 1980s to the Furbys and Sony AIBOs of the 1990s to the RoboSapiens and ASIMOs of today.
Many robot toys come in the form of pets. Sony’s AIBO, a robotic toy that can learn and entertain, is a good example, appealing to more than just the market of robot enthusiasts. Indeed, pet robots are a good example of social robots – robots designed to provide people with companionship. These can range from the AIBO to dining companion robots such as the JIBO to adult entertainment robots, such as Roxxxy. Other robots, such as the Roomba, provide common household functions, such as vacuum cleaning.
The features of most consumer robots parallel advances in the broader field of robotics. They are electro-mechanical (rather than biological) machines, and usually feature the latest in robot learning, sensing and motion technologies, though these are dependent on their primary function and price point. Many can be integrated with your other electronics, such as your iPhone.
Robots available on the consumer market can retail for as little as $20.00 to as much as $10,000 or more. Generally, the more features the robot has, the more expensive it is. As robotic technologies become more inexpensive to produce, the price point will likely drop, as many electronics corporations would love to ensure the average household of the next ten years features at least one robot.
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FUTURE DEVELOPMENT OF ROBOTICS TECHNOLOGY
Much like popular fiction, scientists and futurists alike do predict that in the next few decades, robots will be in every household. However, few predict the proliferation of humanoid robots. Robotics technologies will instead be propagated throughout all types of electronic devices. This is already occurring. Self-driving cars and smart cities are prime examples. In addition, given that defense departments and healthcare companies are driving investment in robotics technology R&D to ensure productivity gains in the military and medicine, they are committed to adopting new technologies that meet safety, productivity, and cost standards.
Advances in motion and sensing technologies will continue to improve the precision of robot motion, allowing robots to perform tasks once exclusively the domain of humans, as well as some tasks beyond our capabilities. Open sourcing robotics software development will likely yield answers to some tough problems facing roboticists now, but an eventual standardization of operating systems will likely yield the biggest breakthroughs.
Integration with artificial intelligence research
Every new breakthrough in robot learning brings us closer and closer to singularity. At some point in the not too distance future (Noted futurist, inventor and machine learning expert at Google, Ray Kurzweil, predicts by 2029) we will have the ability to develop fully autonomous robots, which will bring new opportunities and challenges.
Advances in nanotechnology will most notably have beneficial implications for healthcare, in terms of medicine delivery, healthcare monitoring, medical devices, and surgeries. However, nanotechnology has frightening implications for modern warfare and could, if weaponized, be as destructive as nuclear weapons. Beyond use in some consumer goods manufacturing, there is not much of a consumer market for nano-bots. Nevertheless, there soon might be.
BENEFITS OF ROBOTICS
As robotics advances, the benefits of robot utilization grow exponentially. Service robots in industry have lowered production costs and created safer working environments. Military usage of robots has reduced casualties and collateral damage. Robots have also improved healthcare delivery and the advancement, and will likely continue to do so. Moreover, the proliferation of consumer robots may help us, not only in our daily lives, but also understand ourselves better.
ETHICAL IMPLICATIONS OF ROBOTICS
Robotics presents us several potential ethical dilemmas, many of which have played out where robotics started – in popular fiction. Perhaps the most common ethical question is, if/when we, one day, create artificial intelligence, what is the role of the robot in our society? Even our current level of robotics technology has created a number of issues that we are already wrestling with, including, but not limited to:
- Privacy issues related to prosthetic devices and data chip implants, and the introduction of robots into policing;
- Ethical issues related to physical enhancements through robotics technology; the open sourcing of robotic design; the design of robots that can “breed” (create other robots); and the usage of robots in military operations; and
- Psychological, moral, and philosophical issues related to human interaction with service robots – industrial and personal.
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