1. What is it about
You are sitting in a football (soccer) stadium. There is a huge crowd. You know that apart from the 100,000 people in the stadium, there must be at least a couple of billion people watching the event. This is unprecedented and there has been a huge media interest for this. By now, everyone on the planet must know what is about to happen today. A lot of the details have been deliberately kept secret, so anticipations are high. It feels more like a product lunch of a super-cool gadget than a competition between several teams. But, oh galaxies, isn’t this exciting. The teams have been practicing for years, but everyone is drawn into anticipation to see what is about to happen. It is World Cup after all, and it is the first game between two very interesting teams. One is the champion from last World Cup and the other is, well, a team of robots! The referee blows his whistle and the captain of Team Invincible kicks the ball. Here we go … They are so agile. Wow, this is going to be a close one. Is it actually possible that they could win, in a fair game? That will be news indeed. First time in history! They look so lifelike and superior, you feel you don’t want to mess with them. It’s as if everyone wants both sides to win. Humans versus machines. At last, the dream is coming true. The football of the century; 11 humans versus 11 robots and one goal: to win the World Cup. Humans want it just as bad as the robots. It is 2050 …
Robotics is a technology that most people are familiar with as the idea of intelligent machines is quite old. Numerous works of fiction and movies on this subject show how interested we are in making and using robots for a variety of applications.
2. Where is the fun
- Having a robot maid at home that does all the house work for you. All you have to do is to raise your finger and it will be done, dutifully, without complaining.
- Access to completely autonomous factories that are operated by robots and will make us anything we want.
- Use autonomous transporters that get us from one place to another while we can spend our valuable time during the journey on something other than driving a vehicle.
- As with all other technologies, humans are always interested to explore their sensual side as well. Robots, especially those that look like humans, may have a much bigger impact on us than we realise or anticipate. Some already think that marrying with a robot could actually be better than with a human.
- We can explore difficult environments remotely such as underwater or space by sending intelligent robots. One day, we can discover if there is life under the ice in Europa and we will probably do it with robots.
- We can replace our damaged body parts with robotic equivalents to restore our capability and get to live longer.
- You can have a pet to your desired specification that you could take care of, grow, customise and interact with. Above all, you can always turn it off when necessary.
3. What are its Applications
Robotics is big business. It has the potential to change just about every industry. To name a few, here are some of the devices and application that will be affected: cars, planes, orbiters, spacecrafts, underwater unmanned vehicles, construction, assembly, environmental labour (for cleaning, sorting, packing, etc.), trams, trains and many others.
Robots are suitable for all jobs that require accuracy, reliability and endurance and in many tasks they could be better than humans. Automation leads to increased efficiency in the society as more products can be produced cheaper and when robots are advanced enough they can also help us in task that require thinking.
4. How developed is it
Robotics has been around for years and it always feels as if it is about to take off. It is widely used in factories and the statistics show that their adoption has increased significantly. It is however too early for use in most domestic applications as they don’t have neither the sophistication nor the intelligence required to operate safely in such environments. Robotic vacuum cleaners seem to be the only mainstream use of robots at home. Robotics is still an incremental science and an art where enhancements are carried out one step at a time by highly-skilled professionals.
A great example for a fascinating robot is Asimo produced by Honda which is arguably the world’s most advanced humanoid robot to date. Its greatest ability is to balance itself in real-time on an uneven floor such as stair. It’s even able to run.
There is also tremendous effort by defence organisations to reduce the number of humans involved in battles. For example, America's Department of Defence wants to replace a third of its armed vehicles and weaponry with robots by 2015.
The Grand Challenge competition (such as the Urban Challenge, see videos) is another attempt to get different organisations and academic institutes to collaborate with each other and produce autonomous functionality for cars so they can drive on their own in urban environments.
Teenagers are hard at work in creating pretty amazing robots and the trend is what the robotic community has been waiting for. Robots made with Lego Mindstorms are very popular. Here is an example of unusual mobility:
A Rubik’s cube robotic solution:
5. How can it be improved
Human-like artificial intelligence is the holy grail of robotics and there is a long road ahead of us. In fact some of the issues such as the possibility of having a robot consciousness are still in philosophical phase and we don’t really know if it is at all possible.
The biggest obstacles seem to be on mechanical issues as opposed to electronics or software. For example, consider the most impressive Lego-based factory which is acrtually capable of assembling Lego cars! Here, most of the effort is mechanical and the sequencing and programming of the motors isn’t really a big job. Robotics will truly start to pick up, when the robot body itself can be fine-tuned much like software. Humans, the most intelligent creatures we know of, were created with an evolutionary process improving both the body (hardware) and the mind (software) over a long period of time. True intelligent robot may also require the same level of progress on al fronts.
6. What does it lead to
Humans have evolved to be tricked easily when they are confronted with animated and moving objects. After all, it was necessary for their survival. They had to pay attention to any moving creature, which could be potential food or predator. Robots can easily trick the humans into believing they are more sophisticated than what they really are. We always end up taking them as more intelligent and lifelike than they really are. This leads to an interesting conclusion. Humanoid robots will prove to become very successful not because a human body is more efficient than other shapes, but because we will be far more comfortable with something that looks like us and is as almost as intelligent. As long as the robot doesn’t fall into the uncanny valley we will take them as pets, children and eventually as equals.
The industry that will push forward to make the robots more human like will be the sex industry and it could prove to be the killer app to open up robotics to the masses as porn has done that in the past for video and Internet.
Swarm of robots will cooperate together wirelessly as part of large system. Just as you can take Internet as an online activity, or a tool that you use to access information, you may use the robots around the planet collectively to achieve a task. There will come a time that it may be even difficult to say where the boundaries are. Humans may use robotic devices to enhance their own abilities. Robots themselves may merge with other systems to make even bigger systems. In short, we will live in a heterogeneous soceity of robots where humans and robots work seamlessly together.
Creating an artificial being which ends up to be more intelligent than humans is by no means a simple task, and if achieved will be the greatest accomplishment of humanity. Of course as with everything else we have created, we need to make sure that we are not making ourselves extinct. Philosophically, the question has always been that if we end up making something more intelligent than us, by definition we should listen and obey what they say. After all, if they are more intelligent than us, we will not be able to judge their decisions since we would not have the same brain capacity as they would. It is rather harsh of course, but certainly food for thought …