The popular concept of robots has been colored by stories of mythical mechanical beings dating back to antiquity, and fictional robots (remember "R-2 D-2?") depicted in popular science fiction movies such as the Star Wars. Robotics, however, is a serious technology that deals with the design, construction and operation of robots that are used in numerous applications ranging from industries that require accurate and repetitive tasks (such as the car and computer manufacturing industries), dangerous tasks such as diffusing of bombs, and other chores that cannot be performed by humans, e.g., carrying out research on far-away planets, or walking inside live volcanoes. These present-day applications of robotics are bound to grow in future with the development of state-of-the-art technologies such as ever-faster computers, artificial intelligence (AI) and nanotechnology. In this essay we shall examine the subject of robotics in detail. While doing so we shall see what robots are and how they work, the history of robotics, the present applications of robots, the impact of robots in our lives and their limitations as well as the future of robots. We shall also discuss how close we are in the development of a 'bionic' man.
Robotics and Robots defined
Robotics, as stated in the preceding paragraph, is the technology that deals with the design, construction and operation of robots (Merriam Webster dictionary). On the other hand there is no precise definition for robot. Most experts, however, agree that a robot is a programmable, computer-controlled machine that imitates the actions or appearance of an intelligent creature-usually a human. It is a device that is programmed to move, manipulate objects, and accomplish work while interacting with its environment. (Bekey) Robotics researcher Hans Moravec of Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute says that "in order to qualify as a robot, a machine has to be able to do two things: 1) get information from its surroundings, and 2) do something physical-such as move or manipulate objects." (Quoted by Tesler) more technical definition of a robot is given by the Robot Institute of America that defines a robot as: "A reprogrammable, multifunctional manipulator designed to move material, parts, tools, or specialized devices through various programmed motions for the performance of a variety of tasks." (Quoted by Dowling)
Origins of the word "Robot" and "Robotics"
The word robot has been derived from the Czech word robota, which means "drudgery," "forced or compulsory labor." It was first used to describe fabricated workers in a fictional 1920s play by Czech novelist and playwright Karel Capek called R.U.R. ("Rossum's Universal Robots.) The theme of the play was the dehumanization of man in a technological civilization and the storyline depicted a scientist invents robots to help people by performing simple, repetitive tasks, and made to fight wars. The robots eventually turn on their human owners and take over the world. (Bekey; Tesler) Capek himself, however, strongly refuted the notion that metal contraptions could ever replace human beings and called such a prospect "either an overestimation of machines, or a grave offence against life." (Quoted by Dowling)
The term 'robotics' was coined and first used by the Russian-born American scientist and writer Isaac Asimov (1920-1992). Asimov wrote on a variety of subjects including science fiction and the word robotics first appears in his short story Runaround, published in 1942. Asimov is also known for having proposed his three "Laws of Robotics" that include commandments such as "A robot may not injure humanity, or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm." (Ibid.)
History of Robotics
Although robots as we know them today are a relatively recent invention, the idea of automated machine or a mechanical man has fascinated the human mind since the ancient times. For example, the ancient Greek poet Homer in his writings described maidens of gold, who are supposed to be mechanical helpers built by Hephaistos, the Greek god of metalsmiths. Similarly, in ancient Jewish legend, robot-like servants made of clay are brought to life by a spoken charm. (Tesler) In more recent times, Leonardo da Vinci, the "Renaissance man" drew plans for a mechanical man. Eighteenth century watchmakers were also famous for making mechanical, robot-like creatures. (Bekey)
Certain technological developments over the years have directly contributed towards the evolution in robotics. These, as well as important milestones in the history of robotics, are briefly discussed below:
Feedback Control Mechanism
Feedback control mechanisms were the key to the development of robots as they enabled the developers to build a self-correcting device in machines. A simple example of 'feedback control' is a water tank in which a float is used to sense the water level. When the water falls below a certain level, the float drops, opens a valve, and releases more water into the tank. As the water rises, so does the float -- shutting of the valve (and the water supply) at a certain height. This self-correcting principle is still used in the making of robots.
Apart from the rudimentary water control device described above, the first real feedback machine was developed by the Scottish engineer, James Watt in 1788. The device that he developed is known as the Watt governor and was used to control the flow of steam to the steam engine that resulted in control of its speed. The "governor" consisted of two metal balls connected to the drive shaft of a steam engine as well as a steam regulating valve. When the speed of the engine speed increased, the centrifugal force thus developed forced the metal balls to swing outwards and closure of the steam-regulating valve. This action resulted in decreased flow of steam to the engine and speed regulation. (Bekey)
The development of such feedback control systems in the 18th century coincided with the development of specialized tools, and the application of the principle of "work division" into smaller tasks. This gave rise to industrialization and automation of factories. It also resulted in the development of specialized machines (the first precursor of the modern robot) for repetitive tasks such as placing caps on bottles or pouring liquid rubber into tire molds. These machines were very basic and its operations were limited to a few simple movements, e.g., they could not reach for objects nor place them in a desired position. (Ibid.)
Another important development on the road to the making of the modern robot was the development of the multijointed artificial arm. The Frenchman, Raymond Goertz designed the first teleoperated articulated arm for the Atomic Energy Commission in 1951. This is regarded as a major milestone in force feedback technology. ("History Timeline of Robotics")
George Devol Jr., an American inventor who founded his own company for the robot research in the 1950s, was also responsible in making improvements in the design of a multi-jointed arm. It is considered an important mile-stone in the development of robots since the multiple joints provide the much needed dexterity to the artificial arm in moving an object and placing it in a desired location within its reach. (Bekey)
Nineteen forty-six (1946) is an important year in the history of robotics. It is the year in which George Devol patented a general purpose playback device for controlling machines, using magnetic recording; and more importantly the world's first electronic computer -- the ENIAC was built at the University of Pennsylvania. At the same time, "Whirlwind," the world's first digital general purpose computer developed at the MIT solved its first problem. ("History Timeline of Robotics")
With the discovery of the brain (computer) for the brawn (the mechanical machine) the development of a workable robot was assured. It enabled George Devoy to design the first "programmable" robot in 1954. The continuing development of electronics and integrated circuits also enabled researchers to unveil a computer-controlled milling machine that made ashtrays in 1959. (Tesler)
The First Industrial Robots
The first industrial modern robots were developed by George Devol and Joe Engelberger in the late 50's and early 60's and were named "the Unimates." General Motors purchased the first industrial robot from Unimation (the company founded by George Devol) and installed it on a production line in 1962. ("History Timeline of Robotics") Since that time robots have been extensively used for industrial purposes, especially by the auto industry.
How Robots Work?
The ultimate goal of robotics is of course to develop a device that can perform all the functions of a human being. This, however, has proved to be an elusive task so far. However, some progress has been made in the development of some of the basic tasks that a robot needs to perform. Let us now look at how a robot works.
Human Arm as the Model
Just as the human body is the model for the robot, the inspiration for the design of a robot manipulator is the human arm. Although the dexterity of a human hand is truly remarkable and hard for robotic designers and developers to replicate, there are other ways in which a robotic "manipulator" can be designed to move that a human…