There is no other man-made creation that generates the same mixture of feeling as robots do. On one hand, we want robots to simplify our tasks and everyday life, but on the other hand, we can’t help but fear that one day we will lose jobs to a machine. Well, while automation is inevitable, there is a much bigger chance for robots to become your coworker, rather than replace you and steal your job.
The fear that robots may one day take over, although unlikely, does have its motives, if you think about how much robotics have evolved. Robots are now smart enough to get out of factories and warehouses and find their place inside human houses, restaurants and schools.
Brief History of Robotics
The word “robot” appeared first in Karel Capek’s 1921 play, called R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) and it comes from the Czech definition of “forced labor”. In the play, the robots were made of chemical batter, instead of metal, and had a human-like form. Capek’s play is thought to establish the idea of an untrusted machine, the exact way they are depicted in some movies today, such as Blade Runner, Terminator and Westworld. Despite the word being first used in Capek’s play, scientists discovered technical manuscripts that dated back to 300-400 B.C., that reveal humans’ desire to build “Automata” and “Pneumatica”, described as human-like automated machines.
If you were to ask, no two roboticists would give you the same definition of “robot”, but they can all agree on some things: robots are intelligent, can perform autonomous tasks, as well as sense and manipulate their surroundings. These exact qualities are the key elements that differentiate a robot from any kind of machinery.
The first machinery able to perceive and reason about its environment was called Shakey and was built in 1968 at the Stanford Research Center. It was equipped with a camera and sensors that allowed it to navigate in a complex environment. Around this time, robot arms were also beginning to revolutionize the manufacturing industry.
Up until the 1980s, robots did not see the outside of laboratories and factories. P-3, an astronaut-looking robot was completed in 1997. It has a 136-volt battery, a wireless receiver and a processing unit, all built in a backpack. The robot was able to walk up the stairs, identify objects in a room and regain stability when it was pushed. In other words, you could say that P-3 is the ancestor of Asimo, dubbed “the world’s most advanced humanoid robot”.
Robotics in the Present Time
Nowadays, robots are starting to play an important role in various industries, all thanks to three revolutionizing technologies: sensors, actuators and Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Sensors help machines and robots recognize and navigate around their surroundings. This way, they are able to understand when a human co-worker is around them and slow down in order to not endanger them, or when, for example, fruits are ready to be harvested from a tree. Sensors are what allows collaborative robots, also known as cobots, to work alongside humans and not be locked in safety cages.
Actuators can be described as the device that turns energy into physical motion. This is what determines how strong and flowy a robot’s moves are. While some actuators are more mechanical, kind of like an electric motor + gearbox combination, roboticists are aiming to create actuators that operate on a completely new level, in order to be integrated into soft robots. Those robots are able to use air or oil to generate movement. This makes for a more natural-looking type of motions, resembling human movements. As technology moves forward, actuators are going to provide robots more stability, eliminating the need for humans to help them out of jams.
Getting stronger and more flexible is not enough to uncover the full potential of robots. In order for them to become a reliable help for humans, they have to become smarter as well. This is where Artificial Intelligence comes to play. Just as humans, it is paramount for robots to combine intelligence and senses, in order to distinguish various objects, temperatures and other environmental factors. You, as a human, are able to identify a fake apple from a real one, before actually biting into it. Robots need to be able to do the same thing.
Thanks to new technology advancements, graphics processing units, highly used in gaming and VR, aid robots in performing complex processes on-spot, instead of in-cloud, which allows them to operate even if the cloud connection is lost.
What the Future Holds
As time passes, robots become more and more sophisticated, but they still lack one thing, in order to truly become the much-needed human assistants they aim to be: self-sufficiency. There is no possible way to fully program how robots interact with every object or being in the world, so they have to be able to learn on their own, like infants do.
This can be done through reinforcement learning, a process that allowed Brett the robot to teach himself how to solve simple children’s puzzles. The robot was told that it needed to fit the square piece into the square hole, but nobody taught Brett how to do it. By performing a set of random movements, which were digitally rewarded every time Brett got closer to succeeding, it learned how to do this on its own. Brett’s learning process was slow, but steady, and based on how technology evolves, one can only presume it will become faster and more efficient in the years to come. Until then, engineers have come up with a quite interesting solution. A call center where robots can call and ask for human assistance when they encounter a difficult situation and operators are able to teleoperate them.
To further prove that robots are only designed to help and work alongside humans, take for example rescue robots. Imagine being lost in the forest, after a camping-gone-wrong situation, with difficult weather that would put any human rescuer in danger. For robots, that is not the case. They are not affected by drastic temperatures, they are equipped with sensors that can see in pitch-dark and through thick fog and, if something happens, the only things lost are a bunch of metal and wires, which are a lot less valuable than a human life. ATRs (All terrain robots) can communicate between themselves, share their location, what they found and cover a lot more ground that human teams could.