The Rise Of The Robots — They Are Already Here With Us
This history of robots is both fascinating and interesting. While robots are more in the realm of fiction, like in Star Wars and other Hollywood movies, robotics is an actual field in science and engineering that applies automation technology in solving real world problems. Robots are used today for multi-purpose activities in industrial, commercial and military applications.
Prestigious universities and institutions like Carnegie-Mellon, Caltech, MIT and Stanford provide courses in robotics which apply the knowledge of various disciplines that include electrical engineering, computer science, physics, biology and mathematics. The result is the robot, but not the type you would see in movies or read in science fiction books. At least not yet (hopefully not the deviant type).
What Is A Robot?
Robots are devices that can be used to automate repetitive tasks and hazardous procedures. The components include:
- a computer system for making decisions (memory, processor, etc.)
- controller and micro-controller devices for precision and accuracy
- sensors for detecting events, conditions or objects
- mechanical parts for locomotion and mobility
- interfaces for operation and/or communications with humans or other devices
- battery or sub-system that provides power to operate the robot
- software program that contains the instruction sets that the robot must follow
When you put all these components together, you have a machine that can perform what it is programmed to do.
Not all robots have arms or legs and look like the “Terminator”. In the movies, some robots have human like appearances and can walk on two legs. In reality, that is not the case (as of now), but robots look just like any machine. The difference is that they perform automated tasks and when programmed with AI they can also make their own decisions limited to a narrow AI type of system.
Robots that can talk or lift heavy objects are already here, but still in limited use. As the technology continues to evolve, there will be improvements like what we see with industrial robots that now perform most of the tasks in factories and manufacturing plants.
Robotics In The Mainstream
For decades now, top automobile manufacturers like Toyota and GM have automated their business using industrial robots in the assembly line. Robots are also used in assembly lines at many factories in the manufacturing sector. Other companies and organizations are testing the use of robots for security and surveillance. An example is the military use of robots to perform reconnaissance missions.
Robots are also being used around the house. A popular product are robot vacuum cleaners. There are robots that can help people sleep better. Robotic arms are even finding good use in the kitchen, both at restaurants and homes. These robots fall under a new class that are referred to as domestic robots.
They can be quite useful when it comes to performing tasks and helping the disabled. This also falls under a class of medical robots used for therapeutic purposes to aid in recovery or to assist in medical procedures like robotic surgery. At the moment they can be expensive, but as they become more in demand more manufacturers can enter the market to bring prices down.
A more popular use of robots today is for entertainment. There are a new line of products that have been developed that apply robotics technology for retail consumption. There are robots that can sing and even dance. Every year (except for 2020 so far) at the CES convention in Las Vegas (USA), visitors are greeted by various robots developed for retail customers. Not only can they entertain, they can also be educational.
The Next Generation Robots
While many are simple programmable devices, others use advanced AI features. Boston Dynamics has been one of the cutting edge companies developing robots for commercial and industrial use. Spot is one of their products, a quadri-ped mobile robot (e.g. like a “dog”) used as a rover or maintenance device. With the addition of AI it can do a lot more things like gather and analyze data. This is important for deployment to places where work hazards for human workers is common (e.g. nuclear reactor).
Tesla has announced plans of building a humanoid robot (i.e. Tesla Bot). A fully erect bi-pedal robot with a human form is common in sci-fi, but it is not something you see in any actual use. Tesla’s robot is going to resemble a real human, but there are more questions now about what its purpose will be for. This might be more experimental for show (e.g. proof of concept), but it could become suitable for an application once we understand what it is capable of doing.
Carmakers like Hyundai and Waymo are developing robotaxis, with self-driving autonomous capabilities. Operators can make use of robotaxi fleets built by Hyundai to offer Transportation-as-a-Service (TaaS) for ride sharing. Waymo will operate their own service, making it as easy to use as Uber or Lyft. Robotaxis require no human driver at the wheel, so ride sharing operators can save on costs and perhaps lower rates for customers.
Some companies in the fast food and hospitality industry are finding good use for robots, even if it is just in the trial phase. Jollibee fastfood in the Philippines has deployed their Jollibot robot servers. Customers of the restaurant can now have their food brought to their table by a robot instead of a human server. The reaction has been mixed and even shocking to many Filipinos. There are concerns of robots replacing human servers permanently, but these robots can actually provide assistance to their human counterparts. This is similar to service robots being used in some hotels around the world.
In China, it is not uncommon to see high technology on display that includes robots. An example are robopets which resemble dogs. They look similar to the Boston Dynamics design, but they do not serve an actual purpose other than cosmetic and entertainment. That could change though, as developers can integrate intelligent features that use AI. Imagine your own robopet “dog” that can assist you in times of danger or emergency.
There is also research into how blockchain technology can be integrated with robotic systems. This all fits the narrative of a framework where trust is achieved through a consensus of autonomous systems. This can be applied to robots that can work together to accomplish tasks. While not proven in a real world setting, it can be open to further discussion and debates.
While robots continue to emerge in many applications, it is not as simple as building any type of machine. There are public safety and ethical issues to consider since robots can affect society. Perhaps the most important is the labor workforce, that robots through capital investment have been replacing. Big corporations are investing more in technology if it saves on costs.
There are situations and conditions when robots can be more practical than humans. This includes hazardous work places where the risk is higher for a human worker compared to a robot. When it comes to replacing common jobs like food service, it is another issue. What will happen to young students who need a part-time job to help with expenses? There is also the concern of jobs in other service sectors like call centers, where roboagents could replace human agents.
There has been a call for UBI to help assist workers who have lost jobs due to automation. The trend is moving toward more automation in the future, and that includes the deployment and use of robots. If that continues, then thousands and perhaps millions of workers around the world will lose their livelihood. The focus should then be on how to retrain workers or provide access to further education to find a new job.
The robots are here, but it does not have to be dystopian. They have practical uses in providing automation to improve efficiency and reduce costs. Many robotics applications started as academic scientific experiments, but this is what leads to real world applications. Now they can also be applied to the arts and entertainment, hospitality, retail sector and in performing dangerous tasks.
There are reports that it was automation, and not moving jobs overseas that has led to job losses in the US. We can see that from the installation of robots in auto assembly lines in Detroit affected the auto industry. It is probably too late for these industries to return to the way they were, when the majority of assembly was by hand. It would be more expensive and less efficient.
Robots will continue to be used when they have more practical uses like in assembly lines. Now they will be deployed to other industries. With AI they are becoming more feature rich and multi-purpose. It is now about striking the right balance with the coexistence of automation and the labor force.