Technological advances within the last century have been astounding. We’ve moved from horse-drawn wagons to self-driving cars in the blink of an eye; geologically speaking. New ideas and inventions have sprung up that were unimaginable before, and many have made the transition from science fiction to science fact. One of the most common themes, and the default mascot of this astounding series of technical advances, is the robot. Ever since Elektro the Smoking Robot electrified audiences at the 1940 world’s fair, there has been a consistent enthusiasm for this technology from the general public. It was expected that by the year 2000, everyone would have their own personal robot butler to handle many of the menial tasks of everyday life.
Of course, reality rarely turns out as people expect. The science of robotics is far more complicated and intricate than simply creating a machine shaped like a person. Robots must be able to navigate in our world at least as efficiently as we do, and the ability to accomplish tasks that are simple for humans has been difficult to program; until now.
We may not have a robot butler in every kitchen, but robots are beginning to infiltrate not only our domestic spaces, but many other aspects of our lives as well. The most well known of this new generation of robots is the humble Roomba, the first wide-spread household robot that vacuums floors and confuses pets. It doesn’t seem like much, but programming a robot to navigate around a house effectively without getting caught in corners is harder than it sounds.
The most obvious use of household robots would be for assisting the elderly and infirm, who may not always have access to adequate resources to properly care for themselves. Toyota has been working on what it calls a “Human Support Robot” for assisting disabled people around the house. It moves around on a cylindrical base similar to the Roomba, but can adjust its height and manipulate objects with its single arm. It is controlled by tablet, and features a docking station on its “head” to allow for its owner to communicate easily with other people via Skype or other video chat service.
The field of medicine has seen the greatest influx of robotic technology in recent years as the sensitivity and sophistication of robots has gotten better. The Da Vinci Surgical System is a robotic system designed to aid surgeons in many different procedures, from urology to cardiology. The surgeon performs the work from a console which displays a magnified view of the body’s interior with a 3-D imager. Using the same console, the surgeon controls a number of precision tools allowing them to perform many different procedures with much more precision than ever before.
Recently, people have been getting excited about the prospect of robot cars with the passing of legislation in California making them legal. Google Inc. has been working on this project for a number of years, and the prototypes are finally ready, and cruising around California’s highways in an experimental phase. Along with freeing us from the need to pilot our own vehicles, autonomous cars will actually make our roadways safer by removing human error. Robots don’t get sleepy or suffer from road hypnosis (or drink before they drive), and their reaction time is better than our own by orders of magnitude. They will also help alleviate congestion (a real boon for California’s highways) by driving more efficiently and less aggressively than their human counterparts. Eventually, robot cars will be able to create the most efficient traffic networks possible by communicating with each other (their communications will be much more constructive than simple honking and middle-finger displaying).
Of course, there is a dark side to robotics. Armed forces around the world are investing heavily into robots not only for use on the front lines, but to aid soldiers in battle. Predator drones are already widely known, and have been used by the US Air Force for several years in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Future battlefield robots will not only patrol the skies, but the land and sea as well. DARPA has produced several different robot designs including the “Big Dog” robot that uses legs instead of wheels to traverse difficult terrain, and can navigate around in a battlefield situation. Currently, the plan is to use robots like these as pack mules for soldiers in the field, but it’s a small step to place weapons systems like those on the predator drone on the Big Dog and let it do our ground-level fighting for us. The idea is tempting, as it removes our soldiers from harm’s way, but ethicists and philosophers worry about removing the human element from warfare. If there is no human cost for declaring war, it becomes easier and easier to make that decision.
Whether we are prepared for the influx of robots into our lives or not doesn’t matter; they are coming. After being promised to us for nearly a century, Our automated creations are finally becoming important on the human scene. They are poised to change many aspects of our lives, mostly for the better, but a bit of caution would be wise. As these robots become closer to appearing human and doing the jobs that humans do, it will become harder and harder to think of them as mechanical devices, and people will begin attributing to them human emotions and desires. Robots are tools that can perform many tasks, but they will never take the place of human social interaction. We take the risk of placing to much trust and faith into a machine that will never truly understand what it means to be human.