What is a robot?

Robots are machines, usually electromechanical, that preform tasks that are usually controlled by a computer. They must be able to interact with their environment through mechanical movements and sensory receptors, as well as make decisions based on their programmming, and therefore must be programmable.

NOTE: this is a very general definition, which is not universal

Key Issues with Robots

The application of rapidly advancing fields of software and hardware engineering and biotechnology to recreate life or intelligence raises ethical and social issues. There is an ethical responsibility on the part of the creator to ensure that the robot or virtual pet causes no harm. There is also the impact of new technology on society. On the one hand, replacing people with robots may reduce labour costs and contribute to unemployment in society, but new jobs in the information technology industry are created.

Since the introduction of automation in industry (the first major automation was achieved on weaving looms, and its opponents were called luddites) there has been an understandable fear of the introduction of technology. Automated looms were designed to do the same job as the weavers. Thousands of workers lost their jobs when these machines were introduced. More recently the introduction (from 1980) of automated tellers has displaced thousands of jobs in the banking industry.

Labour-intensive heavy industries were quick to adopt robotic technologies in the interests of perceived efficiencies, safety and economy. Robots can work round the clock, are easier to repair, don't get sick and don't require staff amenities. Replacing people with robots was seen as a way of reducing labour costs, workers' compensation and union influence. The replacement of people by automated systems contributes to unemployment in society, especially for the most disadvantaged group — unskilled workers — which can result in long-term unemployment.

Robots have also created new jobs directly and can create wealth, leading to the development of new industries and jobs.

The Laws of Robotics

Isaac Asimov discussed the behaviour and thoughts of robots and devised Three Laws of Robotics. A robot:
  • may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm
  • must obey orders given to him by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law
  • must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. (Asimov, 1950: 8)

David Wood and Robin Murphy of Texas A&M University, more recently, composed three laws that put the responsibility back on humans.

And here are the three new laws that Woods and Murphy propose:
  • A human may not deploy a robot without the human-robot work system meeting the highest legal and professional standards of safety and ethics.
  • A robot must respond to humans as appropriate for their roles.
  • A robot must be endowed with sufficient situated autonomy to protect its own existence as long as such protection provides smooth transfer of control which does not conflict with the First and Second Laws.

The new first law assumes the reality that humans deploy robots. The second assumes that robots will have limited ability to understand human orders, and so they will be designed to respond to an appropriate set of orders from a limited number of humans.
The last law is the most complex, Woods said.

"Robots exist in an open world where you can't predict everything that's going to happen. The robot has to have some autonomy in order to act and react in a real situation. It needs to make decisions to protect itself, but it also needs to transfer control to humans when appropriate. You don't want a robot to drive off a ledge, for instance -- unless a human needs the robot to drive off the ledge. When those situations happen, you need to have smooth transfer of control from the robot to the appropriate human," Woods said.

"The bottom line is, robots need to be responsive and resilient. They have to be able to protect themselves and also smoothly transfer control to humans when necessary."

Woods admits that one thing is missing from the new laws: the romance of Asimov's fiction -- the idea of a perfect, moral robot that sets engineers' hearts fluttering.

Social Issue - Replacing people

When people are replaced by robots a number of issues / questions arise: -
  1. Leaving people out of a job; reducing their opportunity to earn.
  2. Trustworthiness of a robot i.e. reliability, accuracy etc
  3. How effective is a robot in doing the same work? Can a robot ever be creative?
  4. Do we still need people?
  5. Do humans become lazy?
  6. The level of rational thinking that robots have. This is not the same thing as algorithmically because computer programs are essentially algorithms.

Agency sees robots replacing humans in service jobs by 2025
Robots: The future is now

Social Interaction - change in society's interaction

Human-robot interaction is the study of interactions between humans and robots. It is often referred as HRI by researchers.

Robotic pets - The Aibo

Ethical decisions regarding the use of robots in situations that might endanger human beings

The key question here is: when is it OK to use a robot? Should using robots for military purposes be allowed? When should we use robots for surgery and what degree of control do we give the robot? Should the surgeon performing the surgery be in the same room as the patient?

Robots assisting research and exploration

Lunar rovers: ATHLETE: Rough and Steep Terrain Lunar Surface Mobility

JPL, JSC, ARC, Stanford, and Boeing will conduct a focused R&D project to develop and demonstrate at TRL 6 a robotic vehicle that is capable of efficient rolling mobility over Apollo-like undulating terrain and walking over extremely rough or steep terrain. This will enable robotic or human missions on the surface of the moon to reach essentially any desired site of interest.

Click here to see the video: - ATHLETE: Lunar Mobility Robot

Commercial Rovers: Urbie

Rovers tend to be associated with space exploration. In 1997, the Sojourner rover successfully studied the surface of Mars. Today, engineers are designing the twin rovers that will go to Mars in 2003. Rovers, however, can also be useful here on Earth, especially in dangerous environments that are difficult for humans to enter. Engineers are currently testing an Urban Robot, nicknamed Urbie, which may one day be used by police, emergency workers and rescue personnel.

Urbie is small and lightweight, making it easily transportable and able to fit in tight spaces. Like rovers bound for planetary exploration, Urbie must be autonomous, or able to control itself. Its twin set of cameras act like eyes and provide stereoscopic vision, helping the rover avoid obstacles in its path. Arms that rotate 360 degrees permit Urbie to climb over obstacles and drive up stairs. If Urbie ever flips over, the arms help it to turn upright again.

In the future, Urbie will also carry a night-vision camera and a two-axis scanning laser range finder. The range finder, a new sensor being developed at JPL, will be used for 3-D indoor mapping, obstacle avoidance and terrain mapping.

Originally designed for mobile military reconnaissance in city terrain, Urbie and robots like it may one day investigate environments contaminated with radiation, biological hazards or chemical spills. These rovers could also search for victims in fires too dangerous for firefighters.

Urbie is a joint effort of JPL, iRobot Corporation, the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Southern California Robotics Research Laboratory.

Source: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory - California Institute of Technology

Urbie video 1
Urbie video 2

Industrial Robots

Robots can be used in industrial settings in many different ways: -

Video of a robot shifting and stacking pallets:

Robot assembly line:

KUKA - automotive door assembly:

As with any business decision, there are pros and cons to automating with industrial robots. It's important to take time to consider the facts and evaluate your needs. The following points address some of the good and the bad of buying robots: -

The Advantages of Industrial Robots
  1. Quality:
    Robots have the capacity to dramatically improve product quality. Applications are performed with precision and high repeatability every time. This level of consistency can be hard to achieve any other way.
  2. Production:
    With robots, throughput speeds increase, which directly impacts production. Because robots have the ability to work at a constant speed without pausing for breaks, sleep, vacations, they have the potential to produce more than a human worker.
  3. Safety:
    Robots increase workplace safety. Workers are moved to supervisory roles, so they no longer have to perform dangerous applications in hazardous settings.
  4. Savings:
    Greater worker safety leads to financial savings. There are fewer healthcare and insurance concerns for employers. Robots also offer untiring performance which saves valuable time. Their movements are always exact, so less material is wasted.

The Disadvantages of Industrial Robots:
  1. Expense:
    The initial investment of robots is significant, especially when business owners are limiting their purchases to new robotic equipment. The cost of automation should be calculated in light of a business' greater financial budget. Regular maintenance needs can have a financial toll as well.
  2. Return on Investment (ROI):
    Incorporating industrial robots does not guarantee results. Without planning, companies can have difficulty achieving their goals.
  3. Expertise:
    Employees will require training in programming and interacting with the new robotic equipment. This normally takestime and financial output.
  4. Safety:
    Robots may protect workers from some hazards, but in the meantime, their very presence can create other safety problems. These new dangers must be taken into consideration.

While businesses can save money using robots this is not always the case if robots are incorrectly applied: -
The Top 10 Robotics Application Mistakes

Robotic Surgery

How Robotic Surgery Works?

The da Vinci Surgical System
The da Vinci Surgical System

Source: University of Chicago Medical Centre

Catherine Mohr - Surgery's past, present and robotic future

Military use of robots

How Military Robots work

PW Singer on military robots and the future of war

Robots and the disabled and elderly

Driving babies pave road for disabled children
Robots that fetch: Device could help people with disabilities at home
New Robots can provide care for the elderly
Japanese build robots to help elderley

Twendy One

Why robots are/are not designed as androids with human-like form?

Android Video

Why haven't we built C-3P0 yet?

Androids and Cyborgs, plus the use of prosthetic devices

Imagine the intersection of Prosthetics and Robotics. Man and machine are becoming more and more intimate as we move into the 21st century.

Prosthetics today allow for not just walking, but running, skiing, swimming, and other active pursuits. Prosthetics in the coming decades will allow for complete control of the missing parts of the human anatomy.

In order for a robotic prosthetic limb to work, it must have several components to integrate it into the body's function: Biosensors detect signals from the user's nervous or muscular systems. It then relays this information to a controller located inside the device, and processes feedback from the limb and actuator (e.g., position, force) and sends it to the controller. Examples include wires that detect electrical activity on the skin, needle electrodes implanted in muscle, or solid-state electrode arrays with nerves growing through them. One type of these biosensors are employed in myoelectric prosthesis.
Mechanical sensors process aspects affecting the device (e.g., limb position, applied force, load) and relay this information to the biosensor or controller. Examples include force meters and accelerometers.
The controller is connected to the user's nerve and muscular systems and the device itself. It sends intention commands from the user to the actuators of the device, and interprets feedback from the mechanical and biosensors to the user. The controller is also responsible for the monitoring and control of the movements of the device.
An actuator mimics the actions of a muscle in producing force and movement. Examples include a motor that aids or replaces original muscle tissue

Robocop - part man - part machine

Ethical questions - should we be using robotic prosthetics to enhance the capabilities of humans?

A prosthetic is an artificial extension that replaces a missing body part. It is part of the field of biomechatronics, the science of fusing mechanical devices with human muscle, skeleton, and nervous systems to assist or enhance motor control lost by trauma, disease, or defect. Prostheses are typically used to replace parts lost by injury (traumatic) or missing from birth (congenital) or to supplement defective body parts.

Dean Kamen's Robotic arm

Dean Kamen's robotic arm

Pacemakers - should we use them?
How does a heart pacemaker work?
What happens during pacemaker surgery?
Heart pacemakers recalled

Future uses of robots

Food for thought: Robotics in the Food Industry