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A Small Step for Robotics, A Large Step for Mankind

The purpose of all of humanity’s research can be broadly classified into two parts–to increase comfort in their lives, and to satisfy their curiosities. Robotics, as one of the hottest fields in research and development at the moment, is a perfect example of where these two purposes intersect. Ever since the dawn of the industrial age, man has been obsessed with exploring the endless possibilities to mechanise all of his tasks. However, only mechanising was never enough, as it would still require human interference. Thus, the concept of automation and robots was born.

On hearing the word robot, most people almost immediately think of an intelligent humanoid. Science fiction has made the word popular among the masses over the last century. However, the word originates from an old Slavonic word ‘robota’, which means servitude or forced labour. That is quite an appropriate definition of what a robot is meant to do. Modern robotics has an extensive span when it comes to the number of ideas that fall into this category. Ranging from basic industrial robots to the sophisticated Sophia, humanity has progressed by leaps and bounds in robotics over the last century.

Robotics is also a great example of how popular literature can drive humanity’s ambitions. Isaac Asimov, considered to be one of the greatest science-fiction writers, has had a massive influence on the ideation in the field of robotics. His iconic Three Laws of Robotics, although written in a science-fiction book, are used as guidelines for ethics in robot design even today. The laws are :

  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm
  • A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws

Asimov even explored the possibility of how these laws may be applied to humanity as a whole by devising a Zeroth Law. Fittingly, in his books, the Zeroth Law was postulated by an intelligent humanoid robot. However, given how rapidly the field is advancing and how different our robots are compared to what Asimov envisioned, these laws remain mere guidelines.

Behind the popular humanoid robots that people know about, there is a vast amount of research and development that is based mainly on basic problem-solving robots. Take, for example, the Roomba, one of the most widely used vacuum cleaning robots. It possesses the ability to autonomously map and navigate a room, one of the biggest problems that need to be solved in mobile robots. Another such example is the research being done to build robotic exoskeletons. While a full-fledged Iron Man suit is still years away, researchers have developed basic wearable exoskeletons that assist people who have lost the ability to move due to injury. Such an exoskeleton might not have much of an intelligence or identity, but it is an efficient way to solve a problem that is not only technical but also social, as it provides unprecedented independence to people with disabilities.

Another example of an efficient problem-solving robot is an industrial robotic arm. It has transformed the manufacturing industry by increasing productivity and efficiency. Based on the kind of product that they’re meant to build, the robots possess advanced features like precision gripping, high manoeuvrability, and force sensing for additional dexterity.

With the advent of artificial intelligence and machine learning, robots are becoming smarter every day. With most current research focusses on specialised problem-solving robots, life-like robots and advanced personal robotic assistants are still in the future. Robots are revolutionising agriculture, transport, manufacturing, warehousing and a number of such industries. In a rapidly evolving field such as this, the 21st century is perhaps the most exciting period in robotics.

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