Under Control

Robots And Cyborgs

I recently was asked by Yaskawa Electric (Motoman), one of the premier suppliers of robot technology world wide, to write down my thoughts about what robotics would be like in the 21st century. I thought I would share some of my random speculations with you.

First of all, robots can be thought of as the culmination efforts. Tools are extensions of our hands. Vehicles are extensions of our ears. And so on. But a fully realized robot would be all of those things put together, a kind of super-clone, based on silicon rather than carbon.

Versatile robotics cannot be achieved by means of top down, command and control architectures. Increasing lines of code. What's needed is a bottom-up approach that imparts to the robotic elements in a given system the robustness of an independent agent. It's the change from a state dependent machine to a sentient capability. This would allow robust performance in the presence of unanticipated stimuli.

A concept related robots in that of the cyborg, which blends the human with the machine. The term robotics was first used by Issac Asimov in a story he wrote in 1942 A cyborg, or cybernetic organism has devices embedded in the body to alter and regulate certain bodily functions. The concept was first described in 1961 as a possible means to enable humans to endure interminable space flights.

Of cause, most robots and most cyborgs are not fully realized, but rather devoted to specific tasks. The NC milling machine is one of the most successful machines ever developed. The backhoe in my garden, which we are learning to control over the internet, is a kind of robot. Some people might consider a man on a bicycle as a cyborg.

Our conception of what a robot has changed, from Star Wars' R2D2 to Microsoft's Bob. Just as the idea of the "lights-out" factory has been replaced by trends toward improving productivity though information-technology support of human intelligence, the important robots of the future may be models of ourselves that live on the network.

Robots will be buried in the infrastructure of the future. Virtual robots will browse data, knowledge, and wisdom base. Management and scheduling of assets in natural resources, manufacturing, communications, and transportation will enable some of the greatest wealth generation to emerge in the next century. Tiny computers will be everywhere, drawing our baths, cooking our breakfasts, and monitoring our excretions.

How entranced shall we be? How deep do the prehistoric go? Are smart wheelchairs okay? Will the lines between carbon forms and silicon forms blur? A building will not be a collection of objects, but an integrated system for comfort, status, and safety-a kind of robot.

The big questions are: What will happen when robots free themselves from their anthropomorphic roots? When are they no longer extensions of human physiology, but something truly independent?

For the present, the most viable use of robots is in industry, to automate dangerous or stultifying work. The use of robots to replace humans in other kinds of work is sometimes problematic. However, automation will continue.

I end with a quote from Asimov, taken from the Handbook of Industrial Robotics:

I see silicon-intelligence (robots) that can manipulate numbers with incredible speed and precision and that can perform operations tirelessly and with perfect reproductivity; and I see carbon-intelligence (human beings) that can apply intuition, insight, and imagination to the solution of problems on the basis of what would seem insufficient data to a robot. I see the former building the foundations of a new, and unimaginably better society than any we have ever experienced; and I see the latter building the superstructure, with a creative fantasy we dare not picture now.

As appeared in Manufacturing Systems Magazine April 1997 Page 132

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