The robotics

The robotics

The image usually thought of by the word robot is that of a mechanical being, somewhat human in shape.  Common in science fiction, robots are generally depicted as working in the service of people, but often escaping the control of the people and doing them harm.

The word robot comes from the Czech writer Karel Capek’s 1921 play “R.U.R.” (which stands for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”), in which mechanical beings made to be slaves for humanity rebel and kill their creators.  From this, the fictional image of robots is sometimes troubling, expressing the fears that people may have of a robotized world over which they cannot keep control.  The history of real robots is rarely as dramatic, but where developments in robotics may lead is beyond our imagination.

Robots exist today.  They are used in a relatively small number of factories located in highly industrialized countries such as the United States, Germany, and Japan.  Robots are also being used for scientific research, in military programs, and as educational tools, and they are being developed to aid people who have lost the use of their limbs.  These devices, however, are for the most part quite different from the androids, or humanlike robots, and other robots of fiction.  They rarely take human form, they perform only a limited number of set tasks, and they do not have minds of their own.  In fact, it is often hard to distinguish between devices called robots and other modern automated systems.

Although the term robot did not come into use until the 20th century, the idea of mechanical beings is much older.  Ancient myths and tales talked about walking statues and other marvels in human and animal form.  Such objects were products of the imagination and nothing more, but some of the mechanized figures also mentioned in early writings could well have been made.  Such figures, called automatons, have long been popular.

For several centuries, automatons were as close as people came to constructing true robots.  European church towers provide fascinating examples of clockwork figures from medieval times, and automatons were also devised in China.  By the 18th century, a number of extremely clever automatons became famous for a while.  Swiss craftsman Pierre Jacquet-Droz, for example, built mechanical dolls that could draw a simple figure or play music on a miniature organ.  Clockwork figures of this sort are rarely made any longer, but many of the so called robots built today for promotional or other purposes are still basically automatons.  They may include technological advances such as radio control, but for the most part they can only perform a set routine of entertaining but otherwise useless actions.

Modern robots used in workplaces arose more directly from the Industrial Revolution and the systems for mass production to which it led.  As factories developed, more and more machine tools were built that could perform some simple, precise routine over and over again on an assembly line.  The trend toward increasing automation of production processes proceeded through the development of machines that were more versatile and needed less tending.  One basic principle involved in this development was what is known as feedback, in which part of a machine’s output is used as input to the machine as well, so that it can make appropriate adjustments to changing operating conditions.

The most important 20th-century development, for automation and for robots in particular, was the invention of the computer.  When the transistor made tiny computers possible, they could be put in individual machine tools.  Modern industrial robots arose from this linking of computer with machine.  By means of a computer, a correctly designed machine tool can be programmed to perform more than one kind of task.  If it is given a complex manipulator arm, its abilities can be enormously increased.  The first such robot was designed by Victor Scheinman, a researcher at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.  It was followed in the mid-1970s by the production of so called programmable universal manipulators for assembly (PUMAs) by General Motors and then by other manufacturers in the United States.

The nation that has used this new field most successfully, however, is Japan.  It has done so by making robot manipulators without trying to duplicate all of the motions of which the human arm and hand are capable.  The robots are also easily reprogrammed and this makes them more adaptable to changing tasks on an assembly line.  The majority of the industrial robots in use in the world today are found in Japan.

Except for firms that were designed from the start around robots, such as several of those in Japan, industrial robots are still only slowly being placed in production lines.  Most of the robots in large automobile and airplane factories are used for welding, spray-painting, and other operations where humans would require expensive ventilating systems.  The problem of workers being replaced by industrial robots is only part of the issue of automation as a whole, and individual robots on an assembly line are often regarded by workers in the familiar way that they think of their car.

Current work on industrial robots is devoted to increasing their sensitivity to the work environment.  Computer-linked television cameras serve as eyes, and pressure-sensitive skins are being developed for manipulator grippers.  Many other kinds of sensors can also be placed on robots.

Robots are also used in many ways in scientific research, particularly in the handling of radioactive or other hazardous materials.  Many other highly automated systems are also often considered as robots.  These include the probes that have landed on and tested the soils of the moon, Venus, and Mars, and the pilotless planes and guided missiles of the military.

None of these robots look like the androids of fiction.  Although it would be possible to construct a robot that was humanlike, true androids are still only a distant possibility.  For example, even the apparently simple act of walking on two legs is very hard for computer-controlled mechanical systems to duplicate.  In fact, the most stable walker made, is a six-legged system.  A true android would also have to house or be linked to the computer-equivalent of a human brain.  Despite some claims made for the future development of artificial intelligence, computers are likely to remain calculating machines without the ability to think or create for a long time.

Research into developing mobile, autonomous robots is of great value.  It advances robotics, aids the comparative study of mechanical and biological systems, and can be used for such purposes as devising robot aids for the handicapped.

As for the thinking androids of the possible future, the well-known science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov has already laid down rules for their behavior.  Asimov’s first law is that robots may not harm humans either through action or inaction.  The second is that they must obey humans except when the commands conflict with the first law.  The third is that robots must protect themselves except, again, when this comes into conflict with the first law.  Future androids might have their own opinions about these laws, but these issues must wait their time.


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