What comes to mind when you think about robots? We talked about this subject to Fiorella Operto, vice president of Genoa's School of Robotics. The term robot was invented in the twentieth century, shortly after the First and just before the Second World War, at a time when the development of the machine was in full swing, but perhaps it is less suited to the sophisticated, intelligent and autonomous technology that followed. Names are the children of their time, and the term robot is affected by the harshness and inhumanity of those years. In Slavic robot more or less means slave. But the definition of robots has varied over the years along with their development. The recent IEEE Robotic & Automation Society definition highlights the fact that robots are intelligent machines and systems equipped with sensors and actuators, programmable with different degrees of freedom, capable of moving around environments to carry out planned tasks, without direct human intervention.
An aid for the human race
Robotics is the pursuit of one of humanity's dreams. That is to create something as close as possible to humans. Something with intelligence, computational capabilities, strength, the power to act and something extraordinary, the robot. Today, these machines are our avatars that we send into space and down into the depths of the oceans, taking our place in dangerous and harmful environments, and replacing us in boring and routine tasks.
Do robots take work away from humans? Yes, of course, just like every machine does, from the lever and the wheel onwards. Together as a society, we must live with and face the social challenges that follow the introduction of robots at work, in schools, hospitals and in our lives. Challenges that will mean new skills are needed in relationships and life. We cannot blame robots if they are stronger, faster, more precise and more reliable than humans at many tasks. And at the same time, no human, adult or child, should have to work in mines, or in harmful places or perform heavy, dangerous or boring jobs that can be done by machines. We must send in the robots! The scourge and delight of humanity, we develop technologies that replace us and then we are forced to reinvent ourselves as humans. In reality, introducing the use of robots for many activities should involve collaboration and working together and allow humanity to develop a little more, and move on from the identification of these tasks as human. We need to greatly expand the numbers of robotics experts, making the sector more open to women, who are now a small minority, and promoting the collaboration between robotics, humanities research and end users. Robots, after having invaded the automotive industry and attacked the logistics and transport sector, have more recently started to become part of our smart devices. For example, the self-driving car is a robot. We have become accustomed to smartphones, smartwatches, tablets, and everything the IoT market offers us but we still see robots, especially the humanoid type, as something still far away in the future. But they wont be for long.
The robot body
The anthropomorphic humanoid robot is what most people imagine when they think about robots. But is this really the best form for a robot that needs to work with humans? Actually, in most cases, a robot's job determines what it looks like. In reality, we know that in a range of emergency situations, simpler robots work much better. The robots that worked under the Twin Towers in 2001 were shaped according to their role, so as carts or heaters. And it was graceless marine robots who came to the rescue in the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and who freed the Russian submarine and its sailors imprisoned in Kamchatka in 2005. Sometimes a humanoid shape can be advantageous, where a robot works in an human environment for example. This type of humanoid robot can put us at ease because we are accustomed, and prefer, to emotionally interact with our fellow human beings. It is a complex project and the humanoid robots we have seen up to now are very far away from what was promised to us by science fiction.
The evil robot
Could robots be used by evil people or entities to push human societies towards the kind of dystopias and cruel utopias we have seen in science fiction? As with any technology, "evil" is related to how we use something and is more likely when control in concentrated in hands of a few. Humanity has progressed by establishing laws and customs to temper and humanise the rapid progress of technology. And we have signed covenants to ban various types of weapon systems. Unfortunately, or fortunately, we have no alternative but to increase the number and quality of good norms and customs, especially through culture and education. We need a shared Roboethics, which is applied to the design, construction and use of robots...
The robot network
The future of the world we live in is set to be a global, immersive environment, full of connected computers, enhanced by an ever increasing proliferation of mobile robots, smart sensors, video cameras, apps, local databases all eventually linked to powerful global databases. It will be a network that will circle the planet where robots will move and act as the ears, eyes, arms and legs of a giant planetary robot (Veruggio, 2001). If this is becomes reality we will see a dematerialization of applied robotics and a dislocation of AI (Artificial Intelligence), robotic functions will extend to many objects that are not obviously "robots", but offshoots of other physical objects, sensors, networks, databases, programmes and so on. These "universal" robots will have the ability to monitor events, to merge the data collected by us and our environment and collate it with data downloaded from other databases. They will be able to access the intelligence distributed on the network to determine the best solutions for a given task and then intervene and act in the physical world, being localised but always connected to planetary networks. These robots will be able to provide us with many features of augmented reality, able to inform us about data that we do not access (for example, our own brain/mind) or which we cannot access due to the large amount of information available. For example, they will be able to let us experience unprecedented sensations, such as the perception of animal senses or what it feels like to travel on the seabed or in space. We humans are building our labyrinths, and at the same time designing the Ariadne's thread to find our way out. And that "thread", both ethical and social, will come from an improved relationship between us and our creations.
The author: Fiorella Operto
Fiorella Operto is vice president of the School of Robotics, which she co-founded in 2000. In 2008, she brought the "Roberta, girls discover robots" project to Italy, to promote scientific skills among girls, and for which she received the Blackberry Technovisionary Award. She is responsible for the Italian euRobotics Week and is a member of the High Level Advisory Board of the European Center for Women and Technology. She loves to study languages (she has started studying Mandarin Chinese), trekking and yoga.
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