The popular concept of robots has been colored by stories of mythical mechanical beings dating back to antiquity, and fictional robots (remember “R-2 D-2?”) depicted in popular science fiction movies such as the Star Wars. Robotics, however, is a serious technology that deals with the design, construction and operation of robots that are used in numerous applications ranging from industries that require accurate and repetitive tasks (such as the car and computer manufacturing industries), dangerous tasks such as diffusing of bombs, and other chores that cannot be performed by humans, e.g., carrying out research on far-away planets, or walking inside live volcanoes. These present-day applications of robotics are bound to grow in future with the development of state-of-the-art technologies such as ever-faster computers, artificial intelligence (AI) and nanotechnology. In this essay we shall examine the subject of robotics in detail. While doing so we shall see what robots are and how they work, the history of robotics, the present applications of robots, the impact of robots in our lives and their limitations as well as the future of robots. We shall also discuss how close we are in the development of a ‘bionic’ man.
Robotics and Robots defined
Robotics, as stated in the preceding paragraph, is the technology that deals with the design, construction and operation of robots (Merriam Webster dictionary). On the other hand there is no precise definition for robot. Most experts, however, agree that a robot is a programmable, computer-controlled machine that imitates the actions or appearance of an intelligent creature-usually a human. It is a device that is programmed to move, manipulate objects, and accomplish work while interacting with its environment. (Bekey) Robotics researcher Hans Moravec of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute says that “in order to qualify as a robot, a machine has to be able to do two things: 1) get information from its surroundings, and 2) do something physical-such as move or manipulate objects.” (Quoted by Tesler) more technical definition of a robot is given by the Robot Institute of America that defines a robot as: “A reprogrammable, multifunctional manipulator designed to move material, parts, tools, or specialized devices through various programmed motions for the performance of a variety of tasks.” (Quoted by Dowling)
Origins of the word “Robot” and “Robotics”
The word robot has been derived from the Czech word robota, which means “drudgery,” “forced or compulsory labor.” It was first used to describe fabricated workers in a fictional 1920s play by Czech novelist and playwright Karel Capek called R.U.R. (“Rossum’s Universal Robots.) The theme of the play was the dehumanization of man in a technological civilization and the storyline depicted a scientist invents robots to help people by performing simple, repetitive tasks, and made to fight wars. The robots eventually turn on their human owners and take over the world. (Bekey; Tesler) Capek himself, however, strongly refuted the notion that metal contraptions could ever replace human beings and called such a prospect “either an overestimation of machines, or a grave offence against life.” (Quoted by Dowling)
The term ‘robotics’ was coined and first used by the Russian-born American scientist and writer Isaac Asimov (1920-1992). Asimov wrote on a variety of subjects including science fiction and the word robotics first appears in his short story Runaround, published in 1942. Asimov is also known for having proposed his three “Laws of Robotics” that include commandments such as “A robot may not injure humanity, or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.” (Ibid.)
History of Robotics
Although robots as we know them today are a relatively recent invention, the idea of automated machine or a mechanical man has fascinated the human mind since the ancient times. For example, the ancient Greek poet Homer in his writings described maidens of gold, who are supposed to be mechanical helpers built by Hephaistos, the Greek god of metalsmiths. Similarly, in ancient Jewish legend, robot-like servants made of clay are brought to life by a spoken charm. (Tesler) In more recent times, Leonardo da Vinci, the “Renaissance man” drew plans for a mechanical man. Eighteenth century watchmakers were also famous for making mechanical, robot-like creatures. (Bekey)
Certain technological developments over the years have directly contributed towards the evolution in robotics. These, as well as important milestones in the history of robotics, are briefly discussed below:
Feedback Control Mechanism
Feedback control mechanisms were the key to the development of robots as they enabled the developers to build a self-correcting device in machines. A simple example of ‘feedback control’ is a water tank in which a float is used to sense the water level. When the water falls below a certain level, the float drops, opens a valve, and releases more water into the tank. As the water rises, so does the float — shutting of the valve (and the water supply) at a certain height. This self-correcting principle is still used in the making of robots.
Apart from the rudimentary water control device described above, the first real feedback machine was developed by the Scottish engineer, James Watt in 1788. The device that he developed is known as the Watt governor and was used to control the flow of steam to the steam engine that resulted in control of its speed. The “governor” consisted of two metal balls connected to the drive shaft of a steam engine as well as a steam regulating valve. When the speed of the engine speed increased, the centrifugal force thus developed forced the metal balls to swing outwards and closure of the steam-regulating valve. This action resulted in decreased flow of steam to the engine and speed regulation. (Bekey)
The development of such feedback control systems in the 18th century coincided with the development of specialized tools, and the application of the principle of “work division” into smaller tasks. This gave rise to industrialization and automation of factories. It also resulted in the development of specialized machines (the first precursor of the modern robot) for repetitive tasks such as placing caps on bottles or pouring liquid rubber into tire molds. These machines were very basic and its operations were limited to a few simple movements, e.g., they could not reach for objects nor place them in a desired position. (Ibid.)
Another important development on the road to the making of the modern robot was the development of the multijointed artificial arm. The Frenchman, Raymond Goertz designed the first teleoperated articulated arm for the Atomic Energy Commission in 1951. This is regarded as a major milestone in force feedback technology. (“History Timeline of Robotics”)
George Devol Jr., an American inventor who founded his own company for the robot research in the 1950s, was also responsible in making improvements in the design of a multi-jointed arm. It is considered an important mile-stone in the development of robots since the multiple joints provide the much needed dexterity to the artificial arm in moving an object and placing it in a desired location within its reach. (Bekey)
Nineteen forty-six (1946) is an important year in the history of robotics. It is the year in which George Devol patented a general purpose playback device for controlling machines, using magnetic recording; and more importantly the world’s first electronic computer — the ENIAC was built at the University of Pennsylvania. At the same time, “Whirlwind,” the world’s first digital general purpose computer developed at the MIT solved its first problem. (“History Timeline of Robotics”)
With the discovery of the brain (computer) for the brawn (the mechanical machine) the development of a workable robot was assured. It enabled George Devoy to design the first “programmable” robot in 1954. The continuing development of electronics and integrated circuits also enabled researchers to unveil a computer-controlled milling machine that made ashtrays in 1959. (Tesler)
The First Industrial Robots
The first industrial modern robots were developed by George Devol and Joe Engelberger in the late 50’s and early 60’s and were named “the Unimates.” General Motors purchased the first industrial robot from Unimation (the company founded by George Devol) and installed it on a production line in 1962. (“History Timeline of Robotics”) Since that time robots have been extensively used for industrial purposes, especially by the auto industry.
How Robots Work?
The ultimate goal of robotics is of course to develop a device that can perform all the functions of a human being. This, however, has proved to be an elusive task so far. However, some progress has been made in the development of some of the basic tasks that a robot needs to perform. Let us now look at how a robot works.
Human Arm as the Model
Just as the human body is the model for the robot, the inspiration for the design of a robot manipulator is the human arm. Although the dexterity of a human hand is truly remarkable and hard for robotic designers and developers to replicate, there are other ways in which a robotic “manipulator” can be designed to move that a human arm cannot. For example, a robot arm can extend by telescoping. This is usually done by sliding cylindrical sections one over another to lengthen the arm. Robot arms also can be constructed to bend like an elephant trunk while the human arm cannot. Devices known as “grippers,” or “end effectors” that are designed to grip and grasp objects, mimic the function and structure of the human hand and the fingers. Robot arms can also be designed to perform special tasks by equipping them with special purpose “grippers.” (Bekey)
The other important parts of a robotic arm are its joints. These are usually driven by electric motors. Computer calculates the joint angles and the degree to which the arm and its gripper is to move for performing the desired task — the process being termed inverse kinematics. (Ibid. Section on “How Robots Work?”)
Servo-Controllers (Feedback Mechanism)
Most multi-jointed arms in robots are equipped with servo (feedback) controllers that are connected to computers. After receiving an input signal from the computer the joints move to the desired angle. The joints in the robot arm contain devices that measure the angle of the movement and send the value of the measurement to the controller. The servo controller’s function is to keep adjusting the joint’s movement through a feedback mechanism until the arm’s angle matches the computed angle. Cameras are usually used to locate objects that are to be grasped and sensors placed on the grippers to regulate the process of feedback control. (Ibid.) Ultrasonic or infrared sensors are usually used to avoid obstructions. Powerful computers, multiple and sensitive sensors, and built-in safety devices are, therefore, an integral part of the feedback-control systems installed on modern robots.
Applications of Robots
Unlike humans, robots do not need sleep, breaks from work, food, and safe working environment, and do not get bored by doing the same task over and over again. They can also perform certain tasks that require extra-ordinary precision or strength that is beyond the capability of man. Robots are thus ideal for jobs that require repetitive and precise movements and it is no surprise that robots have been extensively used in areas that require such functionality. For example, the automobile industry uses robots for tasks such as spot-welding, painting, machine loading, parts transfer, and assembly. The electronic industry uses them in assembly lines for mounting microchips on circuit boards. Robots are also used for tasks that are either dangerous or unpleasant for human beings, e.g.handling potentially hazardous materials, such as blood or urine samples in medical laboratories. A survey in 1995 indicated that there were about 700,000 robots operating in the industrialized world. (Bekey, section on “Uses of Robots.”)
Now we shall examine some of the specific applications of robots in detail:
Most robots (90%) work in factories and the automobile industry is still the largest “employer” of robots since half of all ‘industrial robots’ are engaged by the auto industry in repetitive tasks such as assembling of car body panels, spot welding them together, painting the car bodies, and stacking and moving partially completed cars.
Another example of a repetitive factory job done by robots is arranging chocolates in boxes. The task is accomplished with the help of a guided computer vision system, whereby a robotic arm locates a piece of chocolate on a moving conveyer belt, picks it up and places it in a specific location within a box on another moving conveyer belt. (Tesler, p.2-“Working.”)
Jobs that require extra-ordinary precision include certain types of microsurgery. Use of robots eliminates any natural shakiness enabling surgeons to perform delicate surgical procedures that would otherwise be not possible for human hands. Specific procedures include installing of artificial hips, and delicate operations on the human eye. Surgeons can also use medical robots to operate on patients remotely (“tele-surgery.”) With feedback sensors, the surgeon can even “feel” the tissue underneath the robot’s instruments. (Ibid.) Such procedures have promising applications in distant battlefields.
Other examples of precision jobs where robots have been gainfully employed include placing of microchips onto printed circuit boards and soldering of tiny wires to semiconductor chips — fascinating examples of computers being used to produce their own parts.
Another obvious use of robots is their application on tasks that are too dangerous for human beings. These can include jobs such as locating sunken ships, cleanup of nuclear waste, prospecting for underwater mineral deposits, active volcano exploration, and bomb disposal.
For example, a robot called the Mini-Androsis is used by bomb disposal squads to locate and dispose of bombs. The current version of such a robot is about three feet long, and resembles a small armored tank with eight wheels on four “legs” that have the capability of extending for climbing stairs. It has movable arm that can lift objects weighing up to 15 pounds and place them in bomb-proof boxes. It also has the capability of breaking in windows, to see in the dark through infra-red sensors. It can defuse bombs by blasting them with water, firing at them with a shotgun, or placing other smaller bombs nearby. (Tesler, p.4)
Robots can also venture into dangerously polluted environments, like chemical spills or radioactive “hot zones” in nuclear power plants. One such special-purpose robot named Robug III is a spider-like device designed to explore areas with extreme radiation such as the core of a nuclear reactor that would kill a human. This particular robot can walk over obstacles, climb walls, and drag a weight of more than 220 pounds. Its “eyes” (video cameras) enable a human see and assess damage from afar. The efficacy of such a robot can be appreciated if we imagine a Chernobyl-like nuclear reactor accident.
Hard to Reach Areas
Such robots can also venture into hard-to-reach spots like sewers, pipes, and heating and cooling ducts for routine inspection and maintenance. These robots may be equipped with video cameras and tools to perform needed repairs.
Other functions of robots include underwater exploration. This function of robots was demonstrated by the discovery of the sunken wreck of the luxurious cruise ship Titanic in 1986 by an underwater robot named J.J. Since the Titanic was resting at a depth of 12,500 feet beneath the ocean, it was far too deep to be explored by a human diver. (Tesler, p.5)
Robots are often used to perform underwater salvage missions. A dramatic example of such a mission was the recovery of the black box from Egypt-Air Flight 990 (that had crashed into the Atlantic in 1999) by deploying a robot called The Deep Drone. (Ibid.)
Braving the Temperatures
Because of their ability to brave extreme temperatures, robots have been used to study volcanoes. Dante II, an eight-legged, spider shaped robot was designed to study volcanoes and for clues about future eruptions. It was equipped with cameras and sent down the walls of a volcano in Alaska called Mt. Spurr. Pictures sent by the robot’s cameras allowed scientists stationed at a distance to gather important data in the safety of their labs.
Robots can also operate at the other temperature extreme of sub-zero temperatures, e.g., a robot named Nomad has been used by scientists to search for meteorites in the frozen wasteland of Antarctic. The mobile gasoline-powered 4-wheeler can operate independently and can search for rocks through its camera eye. It is able to identify different types of rocks by analyzing their color, shape, and size, while its built-in metal detector identifies the presence of iron, which is a major ingredient of a meteorite. Just as most technology developments have their carry-over uses in other areas the experiments with Nomad helped scientists to develop robots for future missions to Mars. (Tesler, p.5)
Robots are ideally suited for exploring distant planets as substitutes for humans. They can perform most simple functions like gathering of samples, carrying out experiments, and sending back data and pictures without risking of precious lives. It is also much simpler for the space researchers to send robots on space journeys because of other advantageous such as robots not requiring food, sleep, oxygen, exercise, and not getting bored.
There are numerous examples of robots having been used in space exploration programs. NASA’s Galileo, for instance, was an unmanned space probe that traveled to Jupiter in 1996 and performed several important tasks by itself, such as determining the chemical content of the Jupiter’s atmosphere. Another example is the space robot named Sojourner sent with the Pathfinder mission in 1997 to collect soil and rock samples from the planet Mars. It did so successfully, and the collected evidence showed that Mars may once have been covered with water and may thus have supported life. The next Mars mission is expected to have a greater role for robots, as two robots similar to the Nomad used in locating meteorites in the Antarctica, are expected to collect Mars rock samples from different parts of the planet.
Many forecasters predict that future battles would be fought by cyborg troops instead of real-life soldiers in order to eliminate loss of human lives during battles. This desire is reflected in the research being carried out at the U.S. government’s premier center for the development of advanced military technology, where scientists foresee a “robotics revolution by the year 2020.” (“Battle Without Troops.” p. 38) Until now, most military robots have been of the airborne variety such as the unmanned ‘drone’ aircrafts used extensively for reconnaissance in the war in Afghanistan or weapon systems such as ‘cruise missiles’ (that can also be termed robots as they seek out their targets through a self-correcting (feedback) mechanism.) On the ground, the military role of robots has been restricted to dangerous jobs such as minesweeping and bomb disposal. Special ground-robots were also used by U.S. troops in Afghanistan for reconnaissance of caves that were suspected to be Al-Qaeda hideouts.
For the future, military planners are interested in the development of more mobile robot designs. Research focusing on such design is being conducted in several labs in the U.S. that study biomimetics — a science in which actual biological systems are studied for inspiration. (Ibid. p.40). Since the military has the financial resources needed for such cutting edge research, it is likely to play a major role in the future development of robotics.
It has long been a dream of man (and woman) to delegate all the boring household chores to efficient robots. The ‘dream’ is reflected in characters like the robot called ‘Rosie’ in the popular cartoon series Jetsons. Although the dream has taken longer than most people had expected a few decades ago, and robots are still not a ubiquitous sight in ordinary homes, experiments have been carried out for developing ‘house-hold’ robots that point to the possibility of a future where the robot does all the undesirable chores at home.
Two such developments are: 1) a robotic vacuum cleaner, and 2) a robotic lawn mower. The vacuum cleaner works automatically through the use of a microprocessor and sonar “eyes” that help it to maneuver out of corners and dead ends. The lawn mower is equipped with bump sensors with which it can avoid obstacles. It runs on rechargeable batteries and is prevented from going beyond the boundaries by signals sent by electrified wire laid around the perimeter of the lawn yard that is sensed by the mower.
Impact of Robots on our Lives
Although robots have not impacted our lives directly in the sense that there are no “Rosies” running around an average home doing our dusting, cleaning, and dish washing, the use of robots in the industries help to produce products of higher quality and lower cost. They also help to save us from doing undesirable and repetitive jobs. These impacts of robots have a positive effect on the quality of our lives. On the other hand, the increasing use of robots can cause loss of unskilled jobs, particularly on assembly lines in factories. At the same time such technological developments help to create new jobs in other areas like computer software and sensor development for robots, and in the designing, manufacturing and maintenance of robots. Since the new jobs require higher levels of skill and training, the need for retraining of the workforce likely to be made redundant by automation and robots is required. The overall effect of robots on our lives and society, however, is positive.
The Future of Robotics
It is now generally recognized, even by the most conservative scientists, that automated machines and robots will play a greater role in areas such as automated manufacturing of new products, maintenance of infrastructure offices and homes. Robots will be able to perform tasks such as highway and building construction, and cleaning of underground pipelines.
More enterprising experts such as research scientist Hans Moravec, expect robot intelligence to soar in the coming decades. Their optimism is based on the famous principle called Moore’s Law, which says that new microchips become available every 18 months that can process twice as much data as existing chips without an increase in cost.
Moravec’s Four Stages of Robot Development
Assuming that Moore’s Law holds in the foreseeable future, Moravec predicts a 4-stage evolution of robots towards human-level intelligence. These “Universal” robots would be able to perform a variety of tasks that a human can perform.
Computer power can be expressed in terms of millions of instructions per second (MIPS.)
Moravec equates computer intelligence with animal intelligence. A typical present day home computer has about 1000 MIPS of power. Moracev contends this as equivalent to the brain power equivalent of an insect.
Applying Moore’s Law to the increase in computing power of computers, Moravec’s predicts that robots shall achieve processing power of 3000 MIPS by the year 2010. This would give them the intelligence level of lizards. With this level of intelligence Robots will possess basic navigation skills sufficient for cleaning or delivery jobs and for taking expanded roles in factories.
In the second stage (by 2020), the processing power available to robots would be about 100,000 MIPS which is equivalent to the intelligence level of a mouse. At this level of intelligence robots will be able to learn on the job, adapting their own programs to perform more successfully. Robots will do the same jobs as before, but more reliably and flexibly.
In the third stage of development (in the year 2030), a processing power of 3,000,000 MIPS would be available that would be equivalent to the intelligence level of a monkey. At this level, things would start to get really interesting. Now, robots will begin to have a general understanding of objects and what they are for, and be able to interact with living things. According to Moracev, at this stage, robots would be able to practice and perfect new tasks through simulation before attempting them and robot servants will be able to read the moods of the people around them.
In the fourth stage (by year 2040), the processing power will reach 100,000,000 MIPS, which is equivalent to human-level intelligence. Now, robots will be able to speak and understand speech, think creatively, and anticipate the results of their actions far in advance. With reasoning power at par with humans, robots will be generally as competent as people. Unbelievable? Well, it does seem so at this point in time.
Development of Other Technologies
The science and engineering of making intelligent machines, especially intelligent computer programs, is called Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Moracev’s theory about the 4 stages of robot development assumes no limitation on the processing power of computers. But in reality, there is a practical limitation of the increase in speed of computers that may prove to be a major barrier in the development of AI. Luckily, this problem too could be overcome by the future development in another exciting ‘new’ technology known as nanotechnology, which is evolving from breakthroughs in science and precision engineering at the molecular level. Nano technology deals with re-arranging of atoms to create new molecular structures that may lead to atom-by-atom manufacturing on the cellular scale. (“Nanotechnology” Encarta). It is thus possible in a not too distant future that “biotech” and “nanotech” could merge making possible the development of biocomputers with the help of nanotech manufacturing techniques. These computers would “break-through” the present day practical / physical barriers that stand in the way of multiple increases in the computing power of computers. With computers having the computing power of thousands of times today’s computers, the development of AI paralleling that of humans could become a reality. That would be the day a true bionic man would be born.
As we have seen in our discussion of robotics, the dream of developing automated machines or robots who could work as slaves for humans have always fascinated the human mind from the ancient times. It was also observed during the research that although we have perfect models in the shape of the human structure and the human minds to replicate, attempts to develop machines that can perform even relatively simple human functions such as “walking” and picking up an object have been formidable challenges for the scientists and engineers. At the same time, man has been able to make impressive progress in other areas of technology that could also impact the development of intelligent robots, e.g., the amazing and continuing increase in the computational power of the computer. This has made it possible for the scientists and engineers to develop robots that can perform important tasks in fields as diverse as the mowing of our lawns to gathering of rock samples from the Mars. It is also possible that the continuing development in various technologies may one day (in the not too distant future) make possible the development of a robot that approximates the intelligence and functional level of a human being.
Battles without Troops.” Article in Newsweek International: Special Issue. December 2001-February 2002. pp. 38-40
Bekey, George A. “Robot.” Article in Encyclopedia Encarta, 2003. CD-ROM Version.
Dowling, Kevin. “What is Robotics?” 1996. Robotics: Frequently Asked Questions. February 24, 2003. http://www.frc.ri.cmu.edu/robotics-faq/1.html
Nanotechnology.” Article in Encyclopedia Encarta, 2003. CD-ROM Version.
Tessler, Pearl. “Universal Robots: The History and Working of Robotics.” 2000. The Tech Museum of Innovation. February 24, 2003. http://www.thetech.org/exhibits/online/robotics/universal/index.html
Described in “Universal Robots: the history and working of Robots.” Pages 2-3.
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