Robot. A word that has only been around for this past century,
but an idea that has sparked the imagination of people for many
centuries. Man has always looked for ways to cut down on or eliminate
the amount of work we have to do. We have also always dreamed
of creating something inanimate and giving it life.
Even in ancient times there were myths about statues made
into thinking people and about Golems, creatures made alive by
the magic of man. The idea of robots have been around for awhile,
but it was not until 1921, when Czechoslovakian playwright Karel
Capek used the word in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)
to mean "forced labour." When the play was translated
into English, the word stuck and came to be known for what it
"Robot" makes most people think of Star Wars' C3-PO
& R2-D2, or of some of Issac Asimov's creations--either evil
robots taking over the planet and destroying mankind, or servant
robots who "live" to do practically everything for
man. Although we still have a long way to go before either of
these extremes may happen, we are on the verge of what some say
will be "the century of robots." Even though we may
not yet have to fear for our lives, we do have to worry about
some of our jobs.
To the average employer, robots are the perfect employees.
They can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week , without a single
break. They can be reprogrammed easily to improve or change their
tasks, they can do boring and repetitive work without complaining,
and to top it all off, they rarely make mistakes so their quality
These advantages make robots stiff competition for today's
workers. Already many jobs have been lost to robotization. Nigel
Hawkes, writer of the book "Robots and Computers",
found that a Chrysler factory in East Detroit increased its output
by replacing 200 human welders with only 50 robotic welders.
Many other institutions are following suit. Hawkes also found
that United States General Electric matches the output of 10
human workers by using robots to assemble compressors. The robots
can assemble 320 compressors an hour, 24 hours a day.
Of course, we humans do have one up on the robots. Like any
machine, robots can get a glitch and break down. A classic example
of which was discussed in Time Life's book on Robotics. 260 painter
robots of General Motors assembly plant malfunctioned. They had
an all out paint war and sprayed the paint everywhere. Generally,
human workers tend not to have paint wars on the job!
Still, one has to wonder, just how close are we to becoming
a totally automated society? All we have to do is look at some
of the new technology that is coming out and you can see that
we are not so far from some of those science fiction movies.
Maybe that is what makes some of those robots sci-fi movies so
interesting and chilling--the fact that we can see that we may
be on the same path.
Robots are even used in medicine, revolutionizing how doctors
perform surgery. Even the steadiest doctor's hand can shake at
a crucial moment, injuring the patient, but new robotic surgery
arms are capable of operating to the nearest tenth of a millimetre.
Its motions are much more precise and steadier than the hands
of a human surgeon. As a result, surgeries are becoming safer
as robots handle the scalpels.
Employers are always looking for ways to cut down on costs.
One such way is to lay people off, but in an airplane that is
pretty difficult considering that you need a pilot to fly the
plane. But before long that, too, may not be an issue. Pilotless
planes flown by robots today are still in the prototype stages,
and the fact that society might not be ready to step into a 747
knowing that there is no pilot means that it will take quite
some time for people to warm up to the idea. But that's okay,
because it will take awhile for the technology to be perfected.
One similar area that is most likely to be accepted sooner
is driverless cars. Cars that can be programmed to find the fastest,
safest route while the driver reads a book or takes a nap. These
"smart cars" are already well into development, and
some believe that by as early as 2020 they will be on the road
for the average customer.
Photograph by: Neoforma Design
Household chores are one of the tasks that many people wish they
didn't have to do, and a new robot may just solve that problem.
The new Cye-sr robot from Probotics
is a robot programmed to respond to hand claps. One hand clap
and he might fetch you the paper, attach a separate vacuum attachment
and he will vacuum your house. Cye-sr is just one of the first
steps in eliminating those household chores forever. Who knows?
Maybe in 50 years or so we just might have a robot maid like
"Rosie" on the Jetsons.
Robots will not only be taking over boring jobs, but dangerous
ones as well--jobs like handling radioactive materials, space
repair, or deep water exploration. Today, humans have to be controlling
these robots because they can not make decisions based on what
is happening around them. In the future, this problem may be
solved, and robots won't need humans to control their work.
Of course, there will be problems as we advance into the world
of robots. As we start to develop robots that can think, make
decisions, and possibly even feel, moral questions will undoubtedly
arise. Are they actually alive, or are they just imitating life?
What laws will need to be passed to ensure our protection? And
what about their protection? Do they have rights? Already some
futurists are struggling with the possible answers to these questions.
So, as we take the first small steps into the unknown, one
can only marvel at the wonders that our technology is producing
everyday. Today, robots aren't much more than a dream of science
fiction writers. Tomorrow, they may be our counterparts.