What comes to mind when you hear the word “robot”? Do you picture a metallic humanoid in a spaceship in the distant future? Perhaps you imagine a dystopian future where humanity is enslaved by its robot overlords. Or maybe you think of an automobile assembly line with robot-like machines putting cars together.
Whatever you think, one thing is sure: robots are here to stay. Fortunately, it seems likely that robots will be more about doing repetitive or dangerous tasks than seizing supreme executive power. Let’s look at robotics, defining and classifying the term, figuring out the role of Artificial Intelligence in the field, the future of robotics, and how robotics will change our lives.
What Is Robotics?
Robotics is the engineering branch that deals with the conception, design, construction, operation, application, and usage of robots. Digging a little deeper, we see that robots are defined as an automatically operated machine that carries out a series of actions independently and does the work usually accomplished by a human.
Incidentally, robots don’t have to resemble humans, although some do. Look at images of automobile assembly lines for proof. Robots that appear human are typically referred to as “androids.” Although robot designers make their creations appear human so that people feel more at ease around them, it’s not always the case. Some people find robots, especially ones that resemble people, creepy.
Types of Robots
Robots are versatile machines, evidenced by their wide variety of forms and functions. Here's a list of a few kinds of robots we see today:
- Healthcare: Robots in the healthcare industry do everything from assisting in surgery to physical therapy to help people walk to moving through hospitals and delivering essential supplies such as meds or linens. Healthcare robots have even contributed to the ongoing fight against the pandemic, filling and sealing testing swabs and producing respirators.
- Homelife: You need look no further than a Roomba to find a robot in someone's house. But they do more now than vacuuming floors; home-based robots can mow lawns or augment tools like Alexa.
- Manufacturing: The field of manufacturing was the first to adopt robots, such as the automobile assembly line machines we previously mentioned. Industrial robots handle a various tasks like arc welding, material handling, steel cutting, and food packaging.
- Logistics: Everybody wants their online orders delivered on time, if not sooner. So companies employ robots to stack warehouse shelves, retrieve goods, and even conduct short-range deliveries.
- Space Exploration: Mars explorers such as Sojourner and Perseverance are robots. The Hubble telescope is classified as a robot, as are deep space probes like Voyager and Cassini.
- Military: Robots handle dangerous tasks, and it doesn't get any more difficult than modern warfare. Consequently, the military enjoys a diverse selection of robots equipped to address many of the riskier jobs associated with war. For example, there's the Centaur, an explosive detection/disposal robot that looks for mines and IEDs, the MUTT, which follows soldiers around and totes their gear, and SAFFiR, which fights fires that break out on naval vessels.
- Entertainment: We already have toy robots, robot statues, and robot restaurants. As robots become more sophisticated, expect their entertainment value to rise accordingly.
- Travel: We only need to say three words: self-driving vehicles.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Robots
Like any innovation today, robots have their plusses and negatives. Here’s a breakdown of the good and bad about robots and the future of robotics.
- They work in hazardous environments: Why risk human lives when you can send a robot in to do the job? Consider how preferable it is to have a robot fighting a fire or working on a nuclear reactor core.
- They’re cost-effective: Robots don’t take sick days or coffee breaks, nor need perks like life insurance, paid time off, or healthcare offerings like dental and vision.
- They increase productivity: Robots are wired to perform repetitive tasks ad infinitum; the human brain is not. Industries use robots to accomplish the tedious, redundant work, freeing employees to tackle more challenging tasks and even learn new skills.
- They offer better quality assurance: Vigilance decrement is a lapse in concentration that hits workers who repeatedly perform the same functions. As the human’s concentration level drops, the likelihood of errors, poor results, or even accidents increases. Robots perform repetitive tasks flawlessly without having their performance slip due to boredom.
- They incur deep startup costs: Robot implementation is an investment risk, and it costs a lot. Although most manufacturers eventually see a recoup of their investment over the long run, it's expensive in the short term. However, this is a common obstacle in new technological implementation, like setting up a wireless network or performing cloud migration.
- They might take away jobs: Yes, some people have been replaced by robots in certain situations, like assembly lines, for instance. Whenever the business sector incorporates game-changing technology, some jobs become casualties. However, this disadvantage might be overstated because robot implementation typically creates a greater demand for people to support the technology, which brings up the final disadvantage.
- They require companies to hire skilled support staff: This drawback is good news for potential employees, but bad news for thrifty-minded companies. Robots require programmers, operators, and repair personnel. While job seekers may rejoice, the prospect of having to recruit professionals (and pay professional-level salaries!) may serve as an impediment to implementing robots.
The Future of Robotics: What’s the Use of AI in Robotics?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) increases human-robot interaction, collaboration opportunities, and quality. The industrial sector already has co-bots, which are robots that work alongside humans to perform testing and assembly.
Advances in AI help robots mimic human behavior more closely, which is why they were created in the first place. Robots that act and think more like people can integrate better into the workforce and bring a level of efficiency unmatched by human employees.
Robot designers use Artificial Intelligence to give their creations enhanced capabilities like:
- Computer Vision: Robots can identify and recognize objects they meet, discern details, and learn how to navigate or avoid specific items.
- Manipulation: AI helps robots gain the fine motor skills needed to grasp objects without destroying the item.
- Motion Control and Navigation: Robots no longer need humans to guide them along paths and process flows. AI enables robots to analyze their environment and self-navigate. This capability even applies to the virtual world of software. AI helps robot software processes avoid flow bottlenecks or process exceptions.
- Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Real-World Perception: Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (ML) help robots better understand their surroundings, recognize and identify patterns, and comprehend data. These improvements increase the robot’s autonomy and decrease reliance on human agents.
A Word About Robot Software
Software robots are computer programs that perform tasks without human intervention, such as web crawlers or chatbots. These robots are entirely virtual and not considered actual robots since they have no physical characteristics.
This technology shouldn't be confused with robotic software loaded into a robot and determines its programming. However, it's normal to experience overlap between the two entities since, in both cases, the software is helping the entity (robot or computer program) perform its functions independent of human interaction.
The Future of Robotics and Robots
Thanks to improved sensor technology and more remarkable advances in Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, robots will keep moving from mere rote machines to collaborators with cognitive functions. These advances, and other associated fields, are enjoying an upwards trajectory, and robotics will significantly benefit from these strides.
We can expect to see more significant numbers of increasingly sophisticated robots incorporated into more areas of life, working with humans. Contrary to dystopian-minded prophets of doom, these improved robots will not replace workers. Industries rise and fall, and some become obsolete in the face of new technologies, bringing new opportunities for employment and education.
That’s the case with robots. Perhaps there will be fewer human workers welding automobile frames, but there will be a greater need for skilled technicians to program, maintain, and repair the machines. In many cases, this means that employees could receive valuable in-house training and upskilling, giving them a set of skills that could apply to robot programming and maintenance and other fields and industries.
The Future of Robotics: How Robots Will Change the World
Robots will increase economic growth and productivity and create new career opportunities for many people worldwide. However, there are still warnings out there about massive job losses, forecasting losses of 20 million manufacturing jobs by 2030, or how 30% of all jobs could be automated by 2030.
But thanks to the consistent levels of precision that robots offer, we can look forward to robots handling more of the burdensome, redundant manual labor tasks, making transportation work more efficiently, improving healthcare, and freeing people to improve themselves. But, of course, time will tell how this all works out.
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