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Why do we need robots
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A basic introduction to robotics

And the impact these machines have had on society

It is the year 2039. You wake up at 5.30, all fresh and not at all sleepy, all thanks to your Smart Bed which logs data about your sleep cycles and habits and creates the perfect environment for you to sleep. You jump into the bathing station; you are scrubbed and showered. You remember seeing the advertisement of the latest version of the bathing station which even dresses you up. You make a mental note to check it out later. You head to the kitchen and sit down on the dining table where your Home Assistance Butler V2.5 serves you a wholesome meal. It’s not only delicious but also has all the right nutritional values. You leave for your office in your self-driving car and reach on time. Traffic isn’t a problem anymore in a world where all cars communicate with each other. They calculate the optimum route and speed to reach their destinations. Your workstation boots up as soon as you enter and you sit down to work on your current project – a robot that helps you make more robots. Seems like a stretch?

Why do we need robots
Robots have infiltirated every aspect of our lives and we are surrounded by them without even realizing this.

Back to 2017, we are slowly but steadily moving towards a completely automated future. Take a look around you, technology giants are working hard to make self-driving cars a reality, and they are really, really close. New innovations and breakthrough technologies are coming out almost everyday. If you had told someone 30 years ago that they could see and talk to anyone across the globe in realtime, they probably wouldn’t have believed you, in fact maybe even calling you just another nutjob. Nonetheless, the future is here now and the magical thing that is changing our lives currently are ‘robots’.

What is a machine and what is a robot? Is my toaster a robot too?

According to Wikipedia, a machine is any mechanical device that “changes the direction or magnitude of a force”. Machines can be divided into six simple categories:Lever

  1. Lever
  2. Wheel and axle
  3. Pulley
  4. Inclined plane
  5. Wedge
  6. Screw

A machine can be any of these six or a combination of two or more that performs a certain task.

Why do we need robots
A lever is one of the simplest machines. These six simple machines form the basis for all mechanical tools, complex machines and robots.

 

A robot is, well, much more complicated. It can be a combination of machines such that:

  • It can be programmed
  • Interacts with the environment and takes in ‘perceptions’
  • Processes data and works autonomously to some extent
  • Capable of making changes to its physical environment

The main difference between a machine and a robot is that robots are ‘smarter’ in the sense that a machine is capable of only performing a set of specific tasks or motions while a robot takes input from its surrounding, processes the data, and then interacts with the environment. A robot can be programmed to perform a variety of tasks and is capable of taking decisions about its actions based on a number of factors.

It might seem surprising to some, but there is still debate about the exact definition of what a robot is and there’s a lot of ambiguity surrounding the word. A toaster is a simple machine because it is capable of performing only a certain task and does not take decisions of its own, while a 3D printer can be called a robot, as it takes input about the design and then processes it to determine how exactly to print the model.

Not every machine can be called a robot while every robot will have some or the other element of these simple machines.

Characteristics of a robot

A machine needs to have some defining characteristics before being counted as a robot. Following are the basic defining characteristics of a robot that a machine must have to be called a robot:

  • Sense – The machine should be capable of interacting with its environment and sense its surrounding. This can be done using any number of sensors such as light sensors, chemical sensors, pressure and touch sensors etc. The machine needs to know about its surrounding in order to perform an action.
  • Movement – Either the machine should be capable of movement in its surrounding environment or it should have moving parts that somehow interact with the environment. This part of the robot is called ‘actuators’.
  • Energy – The machine should have a power source that provides it energy. It can be anything from solar power to rechargeable batteries.
  • Intelligence – The most defining characteristic of a robot, intelligence is what primarily sets apart a robot from a machine. It should possess some sort of intelligence such that it processes and takes decisions about its action based on the data it collects from its sensors.

Unlike popular misconception, a robot doesn’t have to necessarily look like us humans. Infact, most of today’s robots don’t. An android robot that looks like us and is capable of mimicking our actions and features is still some time away.

Why do we need robots
Not every robot looks like a humanoid and has arms and legs. The Roomba vacuum cleaner is a robot that cleans your house’s floors on its own.

History and origin of the word ‘robot’

The word ‘robot’ is old and didn’t always mean what it does in this age. Robot meant ‘forced labor’ and was used to refer to the system of slavery spread across central Europe, until it was abolished in the year 1848.

The word again popped up in the year 1920, when Karel Capek, a Czech writer, wrote a play titled Rossum’s Universal Robots. In the play, workers were mass produced from synthetic organic material and were called robots. Strangely, the play was not only the first instance of robots but also the first popular media to showcase a robot uprising and a dystopian futuristic world. Karel Capek didn’t know that his play was going to give birth to a whole new sub-genre of sci-fi where robots take over the world and turn against humanity. I guess we have someone to thank for the Terminator franchise.

Greek mythology features a number of characters that possess many of the traits of a robot. Hephaestus, the Greek God of craftsmen, made a thre-legged table capable of moving around on its own, and a man made out of bronze called Talos. Back home, there are legends of King Ajatashatru of Magadha dynasty gathering Buddha’s relics and hiding them somewhere underground protected by robots or ‘bhuta vahana yantra’.

Why do we need robots
Hephaestus was the Greek God of craftsmanship credited with making the first robots.

The first documented account of a robot can be traced back to 4th Century BC Greece, where a mathematician called Archytas of Tarentum designed a mechanical bird called ‘Pigeon’, propelled by steam. Throughout history, there have been many similar designs and mentions of devices that look and work like a robot.

Industrial robots led to robots becoming more mainstream. Robots could not only increase the efficiency and accuracy, but also reduce the number of workers required. The first robot to be used on a production line was the Unimate Robot. It was first installed in the General Motors, Ternstedt plant in USA. The robot had a 4,000-pound heavy arm that was programmed to stack hot pieces of metals.

Within the next two decades, robots had started to gain a foothold in industry and there were more than 3,000 industrial robots in operation around the globe. Currently, there are more than 1.3 million robots being used in various industries and the number is going to keep on rising.

Types of robots and their uses

According to the International Federation of Robotics, robots today can be categorised into two categories – service robots and industrial robots. Industrial robots have revolutionised the production world, increasing the efficiency and reducing manual labour significantly. This $9.5 billion dollar industry is only going to grow.
Service robots, a relatively new field, has also seen major advancement in the past few decades, slowly integrating into our daily lives. The adoption has been so seamless that we don’t even realise we are surrounded by robots everywhere. There are robots that help researchers explore the seabed, robots like the Mars Rover that not only traverses an unknown terrain on an alien planet but collects data samples from its surrounding and processes it as well.

The robots can be broadly categorised into the following segments:

  • Factory robots – A breed of industrial robots that help design, manufacture and package things. Almost the entire manufacturing industry is automated right now and everything from cars to airplanes to safety pins, are manufactured using robots.
  • Healthcare robots – An upcoming breed of robots that help in the healthcare industry. They include everything from intelligent prosthetics, to electronic wheelchairs (like the one Stephen Hawking has), and robots capable of filling prescriptions in pharmacies.
  • Research robots – This category of robots, consists of new machines being developed to solve a variety of real world problems that the current generation of robots are not capable of solving. New technologies and designs are being used to produce this category of robots which include nanobots (nano scale robots), swarm robots (inspired by the colonies of insects, these robots work together to complete a particular task) and much more.
  • Life-saving robots – These robots feature all the machines that directly or indirectly reduce the risk factor of human life. There are military robots capable of defusing bombs while humans can stay away at a safe distance. Mining robots have reduced the risk on human life drastically, doing all the risky drilling and mining work. Work is being done on developing robots that can extract humans from distressed zones at times of earthquakes and wars.
Why do we need robots
Wheelbarrow is a remotely controlled robot capable of disarming bombs in the battlefield.

Robots and their effect on our society.

Japan has more than 40% of all the robots in the world, making it the country with the highest number of robots, and potentially, the first one to go down, in case of a robot uprising.

Robots have come to become deeply ingrained into our lives in the 21st-century society to such an extent that sometimes all we look at are their pros. We are blinded to their cons (also vulnerable to a robot uprising capable of eliminating the human race). Since the advent of the industrial age, robots were touted to replace physical labour and make human workforce obsolete. No doubt, this has also led to new jobs for people who can design, develop and operate these robots. But over the past couple of decades, robots have taken more jobs than they have created, leading many technologists including Bill Gates, to argue that we need to slow down the automation of our lives through robots so that we can figure out ways to create more jobs.

Some scientists and engineers raise the point that an utopian world is only possible if all the menial and physical tasks are being taken care of by robots. They believe that robots are the final solution to abolish all forms of slavery in the modern world.

While at the same time, there are arguments about robots turning on their creators. People like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have warned us against a possible terminator-isque future where we might become slaves to our own creations. Robots raise a variety of ethical questions which need to be addressed soon, because looking at the pace at which the field is growing, the day when we can make a fully-functioning sentient android robot is not far away.

This article was first published in the April 2017 issue of Fast Track. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.

Purusharth Sharma

Purusharth Sharma