Robots: from science fiction to science fact

Image credit: Wikimedia commonsRobots are becoming more common in the world around us, whether we notice them or not. Laoise Fitzpatrick explores the history of robots. The word robot evokes a variety of images in different people. To some, a robot is a tool to help perform a job faster or more safely. To others, a robot is a companion or carer. Until quite recently, robots, to many people, were fictional creations; science fiction heroes or villains. In the past number of years huge strides have been made in robotics, as well as computer science and engineering, allowing robot technology to undergo huge leaps.Exactly what a robot is can be hard to pin down, but the general consensus is that a robot is a mechanical or electrical machine capable of carrying out a physical task. This can involve sensing its surroundings, moving various limbs or joints, or even intelligently adapting to different tasks. Robots, in some shape or form, have been thought of since ancient times. As far back as ancient China there are reports of “automata”; machines which acted, or seemed to act, independently of outside input. The most famous of these is an astronomical clock which contained figures to chime the hours. Ancient Greeks produced a number of water clocks and designs for mechanical figures, while Leonardo da Vinci included plans for a mechanical humanoid figure in one of his diaries.
“While true artificial intelligence has not yet been perfected, which saves us from any potential robotic uprisings, modern technology has allowed for a huge variety of robots in modern life.”
The term “robot” derives from a Czech word, robota, meaning “slave”. This sums up the shift in perception of robots from curiosity or toy, to tools and workers. A large amount of science fiction postulates worlds with intelligent, humanoid robots, generally developed to assist humans with dangerous or menial work. While true artificial intelligence has not yet been perfected, which saves us from any potential robotic uprisings, modern technology has allowed for a huge variety of robots in modern life. Perhaps some of the most common, if unnoticed, robots are those used in industry. Many industries, such as automotive and aerospace require extreme precision, often under dangerous conditions. Heat, sparks, and heavy moving parts can easily hurt human workers, but robotic arms are immune to many of the dangers we face. Some are designed for specific tasks, such as welding two parts together, while others can be reprogrammed depending on what they are needed for. Robotic arms are typically described by their “degrees of freedom”. These often are analogous to joints on a limb. An arm that can bend in one direction, like an elbow, has one degree of freedom. Adding “shoulders” and “wrists” means that robotic arms with up to eight or ten degrees of freedom can be designed, to allow them to perform huge arrays of tasks.While many people will not come into contact with industrial robots, there are some more common examples that can be found in the home. One of these is the robotic vacuum cleaner. These small, generally disk shaped robots can be found in homes all over the world. They are simple to produce and programme; generally following an algorithm to avoid covering the same area twice, and sensing walls and furniture to alter their routes. Other domestic robots can help to clean gutters and mow lawns autonomously, giving homeowners more time away from tedious chores.Healthcare is an area that is using robots more and more. One example in pharmacies is the robotic dispensing assistant. These can take many forms, but typically contain a storage area where medicines are kept in ordered rows with a database of all the stock available to the robot. It is accompanied by a picking device, which selects the correct box or bottle and presents it to the pharmacist. The advantage of these is time saving and, when properly operated, a reduction in human error. Providing the robot is set up correctly, the pharmacist can simply enter the required medicine into a computer and the robot can provide it faster than humanly possible. Other healthcare robots include assistants which can perform tasks for elderly or disabled patients who wish to remain independent. These robots can perform tasks which the patient is physically unable to do, such as preparing and serving meals.There are many more examples, such as space-based rovers and satellites, and military bomb-defusing machines, developed for both private and government interests. One of the more well-known robotics companies in recent times is Boston Dynamics. Recently purchased by Google, Boston Dynamics have received attention for their walking and jumping robots, such as Big Dog, which can travel at 4 miles per hour, and carry heavy loads up steep inclines. Big Dog was designed for military use and funded by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has been involved in funding other groundbreaking technologies such as a precursor to the internet. The technology behind these robots may someday have a huge impact in other areas of life. Another well known company is Honda, which has produced the humanoid robot, ASIMO, which can run and walk, as well as respond to commands and gestures.Current research in robotics is following a number of different paths. There are a number of clear trends in the world of robotics though that underlie all of these. One is that as computers become faster and smaller, more powerful software can be written to allow robots to perform their tasks. This can give more freedom to the robot as to how to perform a task, or what to prioritise. When coupled with advances in electronics and engineering, such as more accurate sensors, this brings us closer to fully autonomous devices. Another area of research is into nanorobotics. These are microscopic robots, as small as a billionth of a metre in length. These may have uses in healthcare, targeting tumours in the body and destroying them without the use of medicines.While we are still some way away from the omnipresent humanoid helpers in I, Robot and other science fiction, as interest and investment in the area increases, we can expect to become a lot more used to robots performing menial or dangerous tasks for us. Hopefully this will give us more time to enjoy being human beings.