Robotics is a fast growing area of engineering and science, but it is easy to forget that its development is a relatively recent innovation. With robots playing an increasingly significant role in a number of areas, how exactly will they be applied in the future?
It is worth remembering that although the advent of robots is a modern phenomenon, the idea and concept stretches back to 1495, when Leonardo da Vinci sketched the first plans for a humanoid robot. It would take until 1913 for the first practical robotic machine to appear when Henry Ford installed the world’s first moving conveyor belt assembly line in his car factory. Seven years later, the word “robot” itself was coined for the very first time by Karel Capek in his play Rossums Universal Robots. The 1950s and 60s saw a leap in robotics development thanks to the Cold War space race and by 1997 artificial intelligence had progressed to the level at which a robot was able to defeat chess master Gary Kasparov. Today, robots are being deployed in all sorts of areas. The field of discovery is perhaps the most exciting, with robots going where humans cannot. Models such as the CHIMP, developed at the National Robotics Development Center at Carnegie Mellon University, executes tasks in dangerous, degraded environments. A similar model was recently lowered into a two thousand year old tunnel in Mexico and uncovered three unexplored chambers from the famous Pyramid of the Sun complex. Of course, NASA is also pushing the frontiers of discovery, with the NASA Johnson Space Center developing an exciting humanoid robot to perform dynamic, dexterous tasks, while the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory is constructing RoboSimian, which is also likely to provide both mobility and stability to operations in space.
The current wave of robotics enhances the contemporary entertainment world too. Entire teams of soccer-playing robots compete in the RoboCup for example, with organisers saying that they hope to develop a team capable of beating the actual World Cup holders by 2050. Meanwhile, the brilliant poker bot is a card-playing champion, processing opponents’ moves and responding accordingly.
And it is this development of artificial intelligence, whereby robots are programmed to act in accordance with likely human behaviour, which will probably see the most exciting and some would say worrying developments in robots in the coming years. The HRP-2 robot, developed as a joint Japanese-French project is even able to move based on the thought process of its master. The potential for aiding the elderly or disabled could be immense.
However, mimicking human thought could also have profound moral consequences. Drone technology is just one example of the growth in robotic warfare. Yet, with designs being developed whereby robots not only execute military orders but also identify the enemy itself, one has to ask whether robots can ever be programmed to make such weighty decisions effectively.
Of course, some argue that robots will soon put humans out of jobs, taking on mundane tasks at a fraction of the cost of an employee. However, the progression of the farming industry for example is evidence that so long as humans can be useful in overseeing the robots in question, employment need not suffer while production can be increased. With so many questions remaining about the technological and moral impact of robots, the future of robotics will be nothing if not fascinating.