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By Susan Ferebee, Full-Time Faculty, School of Business and Information TechnologyPublished April 2015
The father of robots, Joseph Engelberger says, “I can’t define a robot, but I know one when I see one” (CBCNews, (para. 9). Today, there are multiple definitions. The Robotic Industries Association (IRA) defines a robot as “any piece of equipment that has three or more degrees of movement or freedom” (USLegal, 2015, para. 1), and includes characteristics of being reprogrammable and multifunctional (USLegal). The word robot was first used in a play in 1921, and derived from a Czech word ‘robota,’ meaning forced labor. A robot can have a goal, operate autonomously, but lack awareness (e.g., cruise control in your car, the thermostat in your house).
Rodney Brooks, director of MIT artificial intelligence lab, defines a robot as having “…a physical effect on the world, but it does it based on how it senses the world and how the world changes around it” (CBCNews, 2007, para 5). Essentially, robots must be able to sense the environment, have power, move through the environment, and be capable of receiving programming instructions that provide a level of intelligence. A search for ‘robot’ on Wolfram Alpha suggests the dichotomy of the current perception of robots. Two definitions exist on this site: 1) “a programmable machine that can carry out a series of complicated motions, often used in manufacturing”; and 2) “a conscious artificial being, sometimes given the form of a human or other animal” (Wolfram Alpha, 2015).
Over the years we have seen robots interact with humans in many movies: Star Wars’ C-3PO and R2D2, Johnny 5 in Short Circuit, Wall-E, Sonny in I, Robot, but these robots, as portrayed in movies, have not appeared in our daily lives. These types of robots are called humanoid robots. Humanoid robots resemble a human’s body shape and some include human-like mouths and eyes. Although we have not seen the cute, humanoid robot companions as the movies portray, robotics are emerging in our lives in a variety of other ways.
The military is often the first to champion and use technology in innovative ways. Remote-controlled and standalone drones controlled by software algorithms have proven effective in reducing risk and casualty to our soldiers as well as to civilians living in the war region. Additionally, weather conditions, fatigue, hunger, fear, and emotions do not hinder the drone, and military robots do not incur medical costs. It is the military’s goal to use drones and other robotic devices to reduce troops by 420,000 by 2019. Military robots have distinct roles. The Packbot 510 has the most diverse skills as it can fall and recover, travel across rocky ground, take and transmit high definition photographs, and repair its own defective equipment. Other robots serve only to carry heavy loads and others clear minefields (Paris Tech Review, 2014).
What lesson do we learn from the military’s development of robotic devices that might suggest how we will see robots used in the civilian world? The first and foremost use of robotics in the military is to save lives and reduce risk to humans, and this trend is repeated in civilian robotic development. Google’s driverless car is one example, and clearly the intent is to reduce accidents caused by driver error, which causes 93% of accidents as reported by KPMG consultants in 2012. Google’s car has not reached the level of being a driverless car yet, but incremental improvements are ongoing. The car currently uses lasers, which detect an accurate three-dimensional map of the area near the vehicle. It can detect and respond to traffic signals, is aware of people walking or riding bikes nearby, and of course detects surrounding cars. Like the military robotics, the driverless car is unaffected by distraction or fatigue or road rage; however the driverless car handles unexpected situations with less skill than a human driver would. Unlike military robotics, weather conditions hinder the driverless car (Paris Tech Review, 2014), but it seems that the technology used in the military will trickle down to inform driverless car technology.
Again, falling back on the military’s purpose for using robotics to save lives and reduce risks, a third place we currently see robots in use is as surgeons. One of the best examples is seen in the use of robots in coronary bypass surgery. This has typically been severely painful, traumatizing surgery with a long healing period, as the sternum has to be opened up as well as the thorax. Now, a 2mm robotic device can be placed inside the body through a catheter and produce the same result. The patient enters surgery as an outpatient and leaves hospital the same day. Not only does this reduce pain and suffering for the patient, but significantly reduces the patient’s health care costs. It is still unclear how hospitals are impacted economically due to the very high up-front purchase cost for the robotic surgical devices (Paris Tech Review, 2014).
The potential autonomy of military robots, robotic surgeons, and driverless cars raises a number of important and thought-provoking questions. For example, can the military entrust a robot to make a decision to fire at someone? Can a robot decide if a target is more valuable alive than dead? Can ethical decision-making be programmed into robots? With regard to the driverless car, equally interesting questions emerge. Unexpected events will occur for the driverless car, just as they do for humans. The question becomes, how does an autonomous driverless car decide how to react? If the car determines that a crash is unavoidable, the robot would be able to evaluate the crash options. For instance, is it better to crash into an older car than a new car as this will minimize costs? If the driverless car has an option of hitting a car with five passengers or hitting a car with one passenger, the driverless car can choose to protect the most passengers. The question, of course, is do we want an autonomous vehicle making these types of decisions? There are also questions of responsibility for a car accident, or for a surgical mistake—is there a shared responsibility between the robotics manufacturer, programmer, and car owner or human physician? How many different factors might be involved in liability issues?
While we do not yet see humanoid robots active in our daily lives, research into humanoid robots is advancing. Some examples are Asimo, a 4 foot, 3 inch humanoid robot that can assist in getting items, navigating environments, and climbing stairs. These are all tasks that non-humanoid robots can perform but Asimo has the body shape of a human. The human body shape, however, was not used to attract or please the users that would interact with Asimo. Rather, the head, arms, and body provide better stabilization and balance so Asimo could walk (American Honda Motor Co., Inc., 2015). Future development of Asimo hopes to improve functionality so that Asimo could assist the elderly, sick, disabled, and children. Additionally, it is thought that Asimo could perform dangerous functions like firefighting and working in toxic environments. Consider the benefit of using Asimo in caring for Ebola patients.
Japan is the most advanced in creating and putting to use humanoid robots, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe believing that robot development will revive Japan’s economy and support an aging and shrinking population. Japan has created robots that can walk, run, and have facial expressions that display human emotion. In July 2015, a new Japanese hotel is opening that will be staffed by ten humanoid robots: three as desk clerks, two as housekeepers, two as bellhops, and the remaining doing some form of maintenance work. What is the purpose of using these robots in the hotel? Cost savings (O’Neill, 2015). You might want to know if there are any humanoid robots that a person or company could reasonably purchase today. NAO can be purchased for $8,000, and two are in use at a Connecticut library. Nancy and Vincent, as they are named, can walk, talk in 19 languages, and dance. These humanoids will be teaching software coding and zipping through the library demonstrating their capabilities (Waldman, 2014).SoftBank and Aldebaran, a French robotic firm, joined forces to create Pepper, the first humanoid designed for use in the home, Interestingly, this humanoid will not help you perform chores; instead, its purpose is to provide social and emotional support. SoftBank began sales of Pepper to developers in Japan in February 2015 at a cost of $2,000 U.S. dollars, and then plans to extend sales to consumers in August 2015. While industrial robots perform tasks, improve safety, save lives, and reduce risks, it is interesting to note that the first robot that will enter a human’s home focuses on emotional and social support (Aldebaran, 2015). How close are we to having humanoid robots that do chores for us? Not close. To date, out of twelve popular home robots, six of them vacuum, one cleans kitty litter, two serve as alarm clocks with unique features, and one in Europe can iron clothes. One robot known as Agent 007 serves as a security system bot and another called Robomow mows your grass. None of these is a humanoid robot, but look like machines or appliances. I think what we all envision is a Pepper that also does laundry, makes beds, and washes dishes.Susan Ferebee is a full-time faculty member at Kaplan University. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author(s) and are not attributable to Kaplan University.ReferencesAldebaran. (2015). A-Robots: Pepper. Retrieved from https://www.aldebaran.com/en/a-robots/who-is-pepperAmerican Honda Motor Co., Inc. (2015). Asimo. Retrieved from http://asimo.honda.com/
CBCNews. (2007). Your view: How would you define a robot? Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/technology/technology-blog/2007/07/your_view_how_would_you_define.html
Murphy, B. (2015). Pepper the humanoid robot enters your home next month. Retrieved from http://www.seriouswonder.com/pepper-humanoid-robot-enters-home-next-month/
O’Neill, S. (2015). In Japan, humanoid robots may soon run a hotel. Retrieved from http://www.tnooz.com/article/japan-hotel-run-humanoid-robots/
Paris Tech Review. (2014). Robotics series 1-4. Retrieved from http://www.paristechreview.com/2014/09/05/robots-everyday-life/
USLegal. (2015). Robotics law and legal definition. Retrieved from http://definitions.uslegal.com/r/robotics/Waldman, L. (2014). Coming soon to the library: Humanoid robots. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/coming-soon-to-the-library-humanoid-robots-1412015687
Wolfram Alpha. (2015). Robot. Wolfram Alpha app.
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