Where robotics and artificial intelligence meet

Even beyond the fully autonomous robots that appeared in the second half of the 20th Century, human beings have long been fascinated by automata. From Da Vinci’s mechanical knight  (designed around 1495) to Vaucanson’s “digesting duck” of 1739, and John Dee’s flying beetle of 1543 (which caused him to be charged with sorcery), the history of robotics stretches well before 1941 when Isaac Asimov first coined the term in one of his short stories.

Robotics combines computer science and mechanical engineering to construct robots that are able to assist humans in various tasks. We’re used to seeing industrial robots in manufacturing, for example, in the construction of cars. And, robots have been, and continue to be, particularly useful in heavy industry to help with processes that could be dangerous for humans resulting in injury or even death. Robotic arms, sometimes known as manipulators, were originally utilised in the handling of radioactive or biohazardous materials which would cause damage to human tissues and organs with exposure.

ABB Robotics is one of the leading multinational companies that deals in service robotics for manufacturing. Robotics applications include welding, heavy lifting, assembly, painting and coating, bonding and sealing, drilling, polishing, and palletising and packaging. These are all heavy-duty tasks that require a variety of end effectors, but robotics technology has progressed considerably and can also be seen in healthcare carrying out sophisticated medical procedures.

With the global pandemic, advances in robotics for surgery have been invaluable, allowing surgeons to remotely control the procedure from a safe distance. Now this technology is being developed further to allow surgeons to log in to operating theatres anywhere in the world, using remote control systems on a tablet or a laptop. They can then carry out surgery with the assistance of medical robotics on site. The technology was created by Nadine Hachach-Haram, who grew up in war-torn Lebanon, and there is no doubt it will be put to good use in locations where there is medical inequality or conflict or both.    

Mobile robots are also fairly common in various industries but we have yet to see them take over domestic chores in a way that perhaps the inventors of Roomba (the autonomous robotic vacuum cleaner) may have hoped they would. And yet, research has shown that people can tell what kind of personality a Neato Botvac has simply by the way that it moves. The study has provided interesting insights into human-robot interaction. Another study in 2017 demonstrated that anthropomorphic robots actually made people feel less lonely. People who work alongside collaborative robots, whether in the military or in manufacturing, also tend to express affection for their “cobots”.

Building on this affection that it seems people can and do develop for robots, Amazon has created Astro, a rolling droid that incorporates AI and is powered by Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant. Astro also offers a detachable cup holder if your hands are too full to carry your coffee into the next room. Amazon has revolutionised automation with the use of Kiva robots in its warehouses and data science in its online commerce. So, it will be interesting to see if it can succeed where others have failed in making home robots popular.

What’s the difference between artificial intelligence and robotics?

While artificial intelligence refers only to the computer programs that process immense amounts of information in order to “think”, robotics refers to a machine designed to carry out assistive tasks that don’t necessarily require intelligence. Artificial intelligence has given us neural networks built on machine learning, which mimic the neural pathways of the human brain. It seems like an obvious next step would be to integrate these powerful developments with robotic systems to create intelligent robots.

Tesla’s self-driving cars contain neural networks that use autonomy algorithms to support the car’s real-time object detection, motion planning, and decision-making in complicated real-world situations. This level of advanced architectures and programming in the use of robotics is now being proposed with the Tesla Bot, a humanoid robot that Elon Musk says is designed to eliminate dangerous, repetitive, and boring tasks. Andrew Maynard, Associate Dean at the College of Global Futures, Arizona State University voices caution with regard to “a future that, judging by Musk’s various endeavours, will be built on a set of underlying interconnected technologies that include sensors, actuators, energy and data infrastructures, systems integration and substantial advances in computer power.” He adds that “before technology can become superhuman, it first needs to be human – or at least be designed to thrive in a human-designed world.”

It’s an interesting perspective, and one that goes beyond the usual moral and ethical concerns of whether robots could be used for ill, a theme often explored in science fiction films like The Terminator, Chappie, and Robot and Frank. Science fiction has always provided inspiration for actual technologies but it also serves to reflect back some of our own moral conundrums. If, as Elon Musk has indicated, the Tesla Bot “has the potential to be a generalised substitute for human labour over time,” what does this mean for artificially intelligent robotics? Would we essentially be enslaving robots? And, of course, this is built on the belief that the foundation of the economy will continue to be labour.

Tesla Bot hasn’t yet reached prototype stage yet, so whether Musk’s vision becomes a reality remains to be seen. The kinematics required to support bi-ped humanoid robots, though, are extremely complex. When it comes to bipedal robot design, LEONARDO (LEgs ONboARD drOne) is a quadcopter with legs. Only 76cm tall with an extremely light structure, even with an exoskeleton, LEONARDO looks far from the humanoids that the robotics industry may believe will become embedded in our everyday lives. Yet his multimodal locomotion system solves (or perhaps simply avoids) some of the issues real-world bipedal robots experience related to weight and centre of gravity. Mechatronics is an interdisciplinary branch of engineering that concerns itself with these kinds of issues. Some would say that mechatronics is where control systems, computers, electronic systems, and mechanical systems overlap. However, others would say that it’s simply a buzzword which is interchangeable with automation, robotics, and electromechanical engineering.

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Artificial intelligence is vital to take robotics research to the next level and enable robots to go beyond the relatively simple tasks they can complete on their own, as well as the more complex tasks they support humans with. Research in areas such as machine learning, distributed artificial intelligence, computer vision, and human-machine interaction will all be key to the future of robotics. 

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