Robots: Now and In the Future

A Little History on Robots

The word “robot” derived from the Czech word “robota,” which means “forced labor.” The concept of robots was first noted in a play called Rossum’s Universal Robots written and directed by Kurel Capek in 1921. In this play, Robots are depicted as villains sent to take over the world.

Since this time, Robots have gone from a conceptual idea to a concrete thing that continues to advance year after year, plus, we have seen the depiction of robots as positive forces throughout popular culture, from Carl in Meet the Robinsons to Wall-E.

In the 60s, we had SRI International’s Robot named “Shakey,” a finicky robot that was known for its clumsiness. In the 80s robotics took off and companies like Honda began humanoid robotic programs. From this time, robots like P3 and Asimo were created that could perform basic tasks like wave, walk, and shake hands with people. Now we have robots that can perform backflips, assist medical professionals, and control cars. This is only the beginning.

Elements of a Robot

The precise definition of the term “robot” has spurred considerable debate, yet certain key components remain indisputable. These components include sensors and actuators. Sensors can be anything from cameras, to GIS systems, to light receptors. Many robots have a sensor system known as “Lidar” made up of a bunch of lasers that create 3D maps. This system is found in many self-driving cars, allowing them to navigate without human sight.

Another type of sensor system made up of tiny cameras inside the robot creates what is called “machine vision.” These 2D and 3D cameras imitate vision through the use of algorithms to pick up on objects in a robot’s trajectory.

Actuators are electric motors found in the robot’s joints that are usually powered by air or oil. These motors are responsible for mobilizing the robot and allowing it to perform basic movements smoothly. People have begun inventing “soft robots” that are made of cable systems instead of motors and are able to perform more fluid movements like the robot, Kengoro, that is able to do push ups.

Where Are We Seeing Robots Now?

In the past ten years, we have seen a huge growth in the world of robotics, from self-driving cars to humanoid robots and everything in between. Robots are being used in various fields of work, study, and research.

One of the more obvious places that robots have become popular is within hospitals and healthcare facilities. This concept took off during covid when robots became a pivotal part of keeping healthcare workers safe. They would be programmed to take the patient’s temperature  and deliver medicine, so that nurses and doctors would not risk being exposed to the disease. Even though the height of Covid is over, Robots are still seen assisting nurses and doctors with basic tasks like delivering prescriptions, maintaining health records, and scanning for abnormalities.

In the agricultural sector, robots, coupled with artificial intelligence, have emerged as significant contributors. They have been harnessed to survey crops, identifying their specific needs. By employing Lidar technology, these robots can also analyze soil properties such as density and nutrient composition. This saves time and money in the process of growing food.

Common Fears

You’re likely familiar with the argument: as robotics technology continues to advance, there’s concern that it could lead to the displacement of human workers, potentially leaving many jobless. While this viewpoint holds merit, it might also be somewhat exaggerated. As robots grow in sophistication, the necessity for humans to oversee and manage them becomes increasingly apparent. Most robots require some level of human supervision, a concept often referred to as “multiplicity.”

As robots find their way into various industries, more professionals might incorporate them to handle repetitive and mundane tasks within their roles. However, human presence will remain essential on-site to handle the intricate and complex aspects of the job. This trend is already observable in warehouses such as Amazon. Additionally, there has been talk of a “robot tax,” where companies pay a tax based on how many robots they employ in addition to or instead of humans.

Humanoid Robots

In popular culture, the typical robot we see is modeled after a human with a face, limbs, hands, core, and feet, or something similar in makeup. Humanoid Robots are being produced throughout the world and some of them are doing pretty remarkable things. Here are a few of the big ones.

There is Pepper, developed by SoftBank Robotics, a humanoid robot that can recognize faces. Pepper has been seen in healthcare facilities and hotels. It is most noteworthy for its role in helping elderly hospital patients during the Covid pandemic.

Digit, a robot created by Agility Robotics is known for its hyper-mobility and balance. Utilizing surface-plane sensors, Digit can recognize when the ground is flat or on an incline. Digit can be found helping unload cargo and transferring packages. It is able to perform motions like squatting and lifting.

OceanOne, created by Stanford Labs, was designed to uncover and explore shipwrecks in the ocean. Recently, OceanOne discovered remnants of King Louis XIVV’s ship, La Lune, that sank in 1664. This robot uses haptic sensors and can dive up to 1000 meters in depth.

One of the most famous humanoid robots is named Sophia by Hanson Robotics. Sophia uses AI to process emotional, visual, and conversational data. She made an address to the United Nations and appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, where she challenged the host to a game of rock paper scissors.

The Future of Robotics

Robots are not only advancing in terms of their physical structure but also in their cognitive capabilities. The rise of artificial intelligence has allowed robots to emulate human-like thinking and behavior. Beyond resembling humans in actions, certain companies are even striving to replicate the sensory experiences of being human. A prime example is SynTouch, which is pioneering the development of robot fingertips equipped with light and heat sensors, enabling robots to perceive objects through the sense of touch. This could be useful in areas such as building prosthetics for people who have lost limbs.

As the world of robotics continues to evolve, there is a growing need for people to learn about the potential of this technology, both good and bad. To ensure that robots are utilized for beneficial purposes and avoid the dystopian scenarios portrayed in Karel Čapek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots, a necessity exists for human empathy to be integrated throughout the entire process of designing, constructing, and enhancing robots. This empathetic touch is crucial for steering the trajectory of robotics toward positive outcomes.

Published: August 18, 2023

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