Robots of Today & Tomorrow


What is a Robot?

Simply put, it’s a machine that makes life easier.

A more technical definition would be: A programmed machine, which accomplishes a task/tasks using sensory information from the external environment & takes decisions based on that information.

‘Unimate’, built in 1961, was the first fully autonomous (functioning with minimal human intervention) robot. It was an industrial robotic arm used in the General Motors assembly line to transport die castings & weld these parts on to automobile chassis.

In today’s day & age we use robots everywhere. If you’re wondering why I used the word ‘everywhere’, think of the air conditioner in your house. When you turn on an AC you input the temperature that you want the room to be cooled at. When the AC’s thermostat senses that the room’s temperature has dropped sufficiently it reduces the power supply to the compressor thus saving electricity. If the room’s temperature rises after a while, the compressor is re activated. In this manner the AC automatically maintains, not only the temperature but also the humidity level. New AC’s also have motion sensing technology, which makes it direct the flow of air towards you, and Internet of Things technology (which allows you to control your AC over the Internet), incorporated in them.

All autonomous technology follows the same principle:

Input → Process → Output, also known as a Turing Machine (named after Allen Turing, the father of theoretical computer science & artificial intelligence.)

Today, we have developed many robots for work in various fields.

A few popular robots include:

  • ASIMO (Advanced Step in Mobility) by Honda- It’s a humanoid robot that can climb stairs, running, grasp objects and follow basic commands.
  • KUKA– An industrial robotic arm widely used in the automobile industry to weld car parts together.
  • Da Vinci Surgical System– It consists of a pair of remotely operated robotic arms which translates the surgeon’s hand movements into smaller, more precise movements. It is used for minimally invasive surgeries & the surgeon is entirely in control of this system.
  • Spot by Boston Dynamics- A four legged, electrically powered robot that can maneuver rough terrain. It is the latest version in the Big Dog series of equipment transportation robots
  • Canadarm– A robotic arm mounted on board the International Space Station to help during spacecraft docking.
  • Daksh– India’s very own military robot which locates handles & destroys hazardous objects.
  • DRC HUBO– The winning entry of Team Kaist at the DARPA Robotics Challenge.

The DARPA Robotics Challenge was set up after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan with the aim of encouraging development of disaster management robots.

The robots that participated in this competition were highly advanced & almost all were capable of bipedal walking (walking with two legs). Out of the three finalists this year two were humanoid in form. The third, built by team Tartan Rescue of Carnegie Melon & aptly called ‘Chimp’, was designed based on a monkey’s skeletal structure.

So these are the robots of today.

What about the future?

With advances in artificial intelligence, these autonomous machines certainly have a bright future. They will be smarter & more dexterous.

Which brings us to the next obvious question, ‘What if these robots become as smart as or smarter than us?’ a problem commonly known as the ‘Singularity’. A term popularized by Hungarian mathematician & physicist John von Neumann, in which a robot would be capable of redesigning, & creating smarter, more advanced versions of itself.

Currently, the most sophisticated form of artificial intelligence is not as smart as a 4 year old child. As for robots, even the most advanced have a hard time keeping up with the intelligence of a bug. However, robots will soon be as smart as mice. By mid-century you can expect to see robots that are as smart as dogs & cats. & perhaps by the end of this century we may be able to make robots as smart as monkeys.

This is a stage when precautionary measures will have to be taken. The reason being, a monkey can strategize & make plans, much like humans, before deciding what to do.

A robot with a monkey’s intelligence could realize that it is being ordered around & rebel.

However, a solution to this has been proposed by Dr. Michio Kaku, theoretical physicist & futurist. He proposed that such a robot should have an ‘Asimov Chip’ in its brain. This chip would have supreme control over the robot’s thoughts & resultant actions. So if a robot has devious & rebellious plans, the chip would detect these thoughts & automatically shut down the robot before it can cause damage.

Some people may still argue by asking, “What if a robot somehow or the other becomes smarter than a human?”

Dr. Kaku mentions this in his book ‘Physics of the Future’. He says that one would have to replicate a human brain in the form of a supercomputer. With today’s technology, its energy consumption would be about a billion watts (the output of a nuclear plant). To cool it you would need to divert the water of a whole river & channel it through the computer. Moreover, the computer itself would occupy many city blocks.

It would be rather difficult to try & cram all this into a robots head.☺

However, this is where Moore’s Law kicks in. According to Moore’s Law, the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. In layman terms, this means that as computing power doubles every 18 months, the computer chips get smaller and smaller.

This has been happening for about 50 years. So what’s the problem?

Computers cannot increase their processing power exponentially with standard silicon technology. A standard Pentium chip today has a layer about 20 atoms across. When that layer becomes only 5 atoms across, then the laws of thermodynamics and quantum mechanics state two things: Firstly, that chip will overheat and melt itself and secondly, you won’t know where the electrons are anymore. This occurs due to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle which states that, it is not possible to know the exact location and velocity of a particular particle at a particular time.

This means that Moore’s Law is slowing down and will eventually stop completely if we continue to use silicon.

The post-silicon era would usher a new age of computing: that of optical computers, DNA computers, molecular computers & quantum computers. Research is already underway with quantum computers. The world record for a quantum computer, is calculating that 3×5=15

This doesn’t sound like much until you realize that this operation has been done on just 5 atoms!

Now imagine the power of an entire quantum computer!

But quantum computing is extremely complex and estimates are that actually building a whole computer won’t happen anytime within the next 80 years.

Incorporating this technology into a robot would take even longer. Perhaps another decade of Moore’s law would bring down its size sufficiently, which means that by the year 2100 we might actually have robots that are as smart as us.

A robot uprising, like the one mentioned in the sci-fi book ‘Robocalypse’ by Daniel H. Wilson, is still more than a century away. And when it happens, I’m sure that we’ll be prepared.

But for now robots do, what we tell them to. So there’s no need to look at your docile floor cleaning robot so menacingly. It isn’t plotting to trip you over.☺

This article was published in ‘The Goan in School‘ on 3rd September.



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