The uprising of technology is upon us; the concept of what could replace us in the future is becoming an issue, particularly in the media. It pays however, before looking at the bigger picture, to have an understanding of what robotics actually entails. Firstly, to build a robot, the compulsory requirement is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration! Secondly, for any robot to replace us, it has to be “humanized”, by focusing on the human body as a template for its design. The first ones to cater to such needs were the Humanoids. They comply with Isaac Asimov’s “Laws of Robotics”, which are primarily based around the safety of humans in the presence of robots. Humanoids are also built to learn and to adjust to the environment and if they lacked these abilities, their behaviours would be extremely limited. Just as every robot, they need to consist of a sensory network (usually just involving digital camera-like eyes scanning the environment) and a computer-like brain (which receives, processes and feeds information to the stepper motors for precise movements).
ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility), Honda’s trademark robot, is considered to be the most technologically developed humanoid out there… so far. It stands at only 51 inches, resembles a child astronaut, and reaches beyond the simple behaviours of its fellow robot-kind. ASIMO recognises and understands human gestures and behaviour, and responds appropriately in terms of its speech and actions. It also has the ability to remember faces and names, unlike some human beings! The cost of one ASIMO comes at a staggering 1 million pounds and just a mere hundred copies exist in the world.
Here is a video of ASIMO for your own viewing pleasure: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wiw-jbjnyzc&feature=related
Now, how could a robot literally replace us and to what extent? The first and most obvious answer is through employment — especially in nations where there is a definite shortage of manual workers due to an ageing population. Japan is such an example. In Japan, the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) and Kawada industries have recently been responsible for introducing the robot “blue-and-white HRP-4”, which was built to have an athletic figure fit for manual labour, particularly tasks which involve repetitive behaviours. The problem is that the more successful this scheme becomes, the wider it will spread across Japan and perhaps other nations like it, until human workers might be refused employment. Furthermore, robots do not need to be paid, or even be given a specific number of working hours for health reasons. All robots need is a power source for them to come to life and so they don’t even need to sleep! But if they are to replace us, they may eventually request for many of these things.
Other areas for potential job replacement opportunities include the military. In light of the latest developments in war robotic technology, the issue of sending young men onto the front line could now be a thing of the past. Robotex AH was designed by ex-Disney employee Terry Izumi, shotgun maker Jerry Baber and engineer Adam Gettings. The robot is armed with shotgun machinery firing 300 rounds a minute, travels at speed of 10 miles per hour and shifts its way through the most toughest of land terrains (including water). Potential clients such as the US government will have to pay $30,000 for each one. Would this be a revolutionary change in how war is carried out.. ? The major benefit is the removal of human error from such situations, to evidently “get the job done” without emotion or conscience. But behind the scenes, it is still remote –controlled by an experienced soldier, to prevent the likelihood of an out-of-control mindless, murdering robotic rampage.
Despite growing fears of our replacement, many companies have illustrated that robots are useful for helping people at a much more personal level, so personal in fact that robots might now be able read your mind and act in a useful “slave-like” manner. The user of this technology wears an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap, which measures brain activity; humanoids can pick up on these certain brain signals from particular thoughts, through the help of computers and wireless communication. The thoughts are processed by the robot, enabling it to respond to the user’s needs. For example, if a user thinks about a certain object, the robot will analyse this situation and identify a need to fetch this item. If successful, the user can save this response onto the computer and hence the robot has learnt how to behave by just thoughts alone. This type of technology would prove useful in helping paralysed patients.
Toyota has also looked at introducing “mobility robots” for the elderly and the disabled; these robots also work by the power of thought alone. The user will think about the direction in which they need to travel and upon receiving the correct brainwave signals, the wheelchair robot will move in accordance to these thoughts. The speed at which this brain-computer interfacing technology responds is immediate (there is an approximate time delay of 125 milliseconds for processing). This makes it a very safe and plausible venture for Toyota researchers. It provides advanced health care support for nurses, but could in the future replace them.
It’s not just nurses which are slowly morphing into robots, but surgeons also. Robots can now very successfully identify human organs and carry out operations in the human body. The first robotics-only operation was carried out in Washington on 17th October this year, using the “The DaVinci”, which acts as the arms of a surgeon. Human surgeons are allowed to control the surgical equipment with this robot from a workstation, using the help of quality 3D video imaging. “DaVinci” worked alongside “McSleepy” (a robot anaesthetist), during this prostatectomy surgery. It has been noted that both robots provide a higher quality of exactness in carrying out surgical procedures than a human surgeon on his or her own.
Finally, in other news, the future will hold the newly organized “Robocup” in 2011, specifically designed for humanoid robots to compete against each other in football matches. The overall goal of creating the “Robocup” is to enable a Humanoid team to compete against the “crème de la crème” of future professional human football players in 2050. Then there is the controversial possibility of humans “falling in love” and engaging in sexual activities with robots in the distant future. These ideas come from David Levy, an artificial intelligence expert and author of “Love and Sex With Robots”. He even puts forward the argument that robots will resemble humans lovers, with desirable and sexy qualities, even to the extent that having sex with robots will be no different to having sex with humans. You are going to have to watch out for those oh-so-seductive and sexy robots!
Robotics is an intimidating but also somewhat enticing and broad area of science, where anything seems possible! The crystal ball suggests that this is definitely more than just the beginning of a b-e-a-utiful friendship!
Bonnie E. Brown