Robots contribute to our well-being

If you think robots are mainly the stuff of space movies, think again. Right now, all over the world, robots are on the move. They are painting cars at Ford plants, assembling Milano cookies for Pepperidge Farms, walking into live volcanoes, driving trains in Paris, and defusing bombs in Northern Ireland. As they grow tougher, nimbler, and smarter, today’s robots are doing more and more things humans can’t—or don’t want to—perform.

Robots have been around for less than 50 years, but the idea of inanimate creations that do our bidding is much older. The ancient Greek poet Homer described maidens of gold, mechanical helpers built by Hephaistos, the Greek god of metalsmiths. The golems of medieval Jewish legend were robot-like servants made of clay, brought to life by a spoken charm. In 1495, Leonardo da Vinci drew plans for a mechanical man.

Real robots did not become possible until the 1950s and 1960s, with the invention of transistors and integrated circuits. Compact, reliable electronics and a growing computer industry added brains to the brawn of already existing machines. In 1959, researchers demonstrated the possibility of robotic manufacturing when they unveiled a computer-controlled milling machine that made ashtrays. Public fascination with robotics peaked in the early 1980s, spurred in part by movies like Star Wars, which featured robots C3-PO and R2-D2 as helpful sidekicks to human masters, but interest declined as people discovered that robots have a hard time doing things we think are easy—like moving across a cluttered room.

Today, robots are enjoying a resurgence. Faster and cheaper computer processors make robots smarter and less expensive. Meanwhile, researchers are working on ways to make robots move and “think” more efficiently. Although most robots in use today are designed for specific tasks, the goal is to make universal robots, robots flexible enough to do just about anything a human can do.

Name a boring or dangerous job. Somewhere, a robot is probably doing it. Robots are ideal for jobs that require repetitive, precise movements. Human workers need a safe working environment, salaries, breaks, food and sleep. Robots don’t. Human workers get bored doing the same thing over and over, which can lead to fatigue and costly mistakes. Robots don’t get bored. Ninety percent of robots work in factories, and more than half make automobiles. Car factories are so highly automated that most of the human workers supervise or maintain the robots and other machines. Robots assemble car body panels and weld them together, finish and paint the car bodies, and stack and move partially completed cars.

Another factory job done by robots is arranging chocolates in boxes. Guided by a computer vision system, a robotic arm can locate a piece of chocolate on a moving conveyer belt, gently pick it up and turn it to the proper orientation, and place it in a specific location within a box on another moving conveyer belt. Sure, it’s a task that almost anyone could do. . .but could you do it 20,000 times a day, every day?

“Cyborg,” an interesting word that even applies to some people

The term cyborg, a portmanteau of cybernetic organism, is used to designate a creature which is a mixture of organic and mechanical parts. Generally, the aim is to add to or enhance the abilities of the organism using artificial technology. The term was popularized by Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline in 1960 to refer to their conception of an enhanced human being who could survive in extraterrestrial environments. Their concept was the outcome of thinking about the need for an intimate relationship between human and machine as the new frontier of space exploration was beginning to take place. A designer of physiological instrumentation and electronic data-processing systems, Clynes was the chief research scientist in the Dynamic Simulation Laboratory at Rockland State Hospital in New York .

According to some definitions of the term, the metaphysical and physical attachments humanity has with technology have already made us cyborgs. For example, a human fitted with a heart pacemaker might be considered a cyborg, since s/he is incapable of surviving without the mechanical part.

Another example of a cyborg may be the ratbot, which is a rat controlled through implants in its brain. The rodents in the first experiment wore a small electronics backpack that linked to electrodes in their brains. They received radio commands from a laptop that would stimulate sensations in their whiskers and reward/pleasure receptors to manipulate them into following pre-programmed routes. Some researchers propose using them to search for landmines or buried victims of earthquakes, as they can much more efficiently scout such areas than human rescuers or existing robots.

Back to part 3 of robots

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