The Future of Robotics is Already Here

An article I wrote for the online magazine Paper Droids: The Future of Robotics is Already Here

As a child of the eighties, Star Wars was my first real introduction to robots, or droids as they are affectionately called in the space trilogy. The droids are electro-mechanical devices with some level of autonomy or intelligence, which can take the place of humans in performing tasks.

I thought the astromech droid R2-D2 and partner in crime protocol droid C-3PO were beyond cool. These ‘mechanical beings’ with Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) were designed to augment human life and perform simple tasks. R2-D2 specialized in repair duties, whereas C-3PO was designed to serve human beings, specifically assisting communication between various cultures.

Having watched Star Wars numerous times, this type of technology seemed so far-fetched. The idea of human-like robots was an out-of-reach futuristic idea. But robotics is an incredibly diverse field, inspired and fueled by the imagination of Sci-Fi writers and storytellers in the 70’s and 80’s and maybe even long before that.

Robotic characters derive from the epic stories like Star Wars where droids were woven beautifully and seamlessly into storylines, to novels such as Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ serving as the basis for the 1982 film Blade Runner. It follows the story of a Bounty Hunter chasing down Androids in a post-apocalyptic future and tries to address the underlying differences between humans and robots with A.I. And robotic technology has steadily advanced over the past few decades, used in very critical applications.

Some of the most prominent robots are the space arms – Canadarm, which resided on the Space Shuttles, Canadarm2 on the International Space Station, and the two-armed Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (SPDM), more commonly known as Dextre, also on the International Space Station. These ‘jointed’ manipulators can move space station modules, capture and maneuver payloads, or perform very dexterous tasks like un-torqueing bolts. These robots are paving the way for a next generation of space technology that will be used to repair broken satellites on-orbit and also for some very interesting terrestrial applications.

Consider a robot that can perform brain surgery! The NeuroArm is a first generation MR-compatible surgical robot – meaning it can perform procedures inside the bore of an MRI machine. The arm’s ‘end-effectors’ interface with surgical tools, just as a surgeons hands would hold tools. Variations of these robotic arms are also used for other applications including inspections of nuclear reactors and other hostile environments. The concept of a deployable robot that can assess and inspect a hazardous situation prior to human involvement is a very powerful tool; especially in the military where pilotless terrestrial drones or unmanned air combat vehicles (UACVs) can search terrain for hazards or can perform dangerous and inaccessible tasks during ground or air combat. But robots are just as common in everyday life. Industrial ‘pick and place’ robots are standard equipment in the manufacturing sector or in assembly lines in order to perform repetitive tasks extremely efficiently.

And then there are the robots that are reminiscent of the Star Wars franchise and other Sci-Fi movies. NASA’s Johnson Space Center developed a humanoid robot known as Robonaut to work alongside Astronauts. Robonaut R2 is currently on the Space Station is used to help the crew during Extra-Vehicular Activities (EVA’s) and can hold very specialized tools. Honda began development in 2000 of an Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility (ASIMO) robot, designed to be an assistant to humans lacking full mobility. Or consider the TOSY Ping Pong Playing Robot, TOPIO, a humanoid robot that played a game of ping pong at the International Robot Exhibition in Tokyo in 2009.

While our reality has not yet reached that of an epic Space opera, robotics will forever play an integral role in everyday life. Whatever the application of robotics is, the technology will without a doubt continue to advance, and fundamental questions of the level of intelligence and autonomy will inevitably lead to ethical concerns. What will happen if robots ever reach such a sophisticated state that they become smarter than humans? For now, I will leave that up to the story tellers and writers – sounds like the start of a great Sci-Fi movie.

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