The Future of Robotics

When pondering the future of robotics most people think of one of two things. They either envision a future where no one has to work anymore because robots handle all menial tasks, or they make dire prophecies of the eventual robot uprising. Neither of these is a true future, however, for reality is much more complex.

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First of all, it is important to point out that the future is now. It’s here. We already have robotic slaves doing dangerous, menial tasks for us. Robots have been used to paint automobiles for almost a decade now, since they’re impervious to the dangerous fumes. Robotic lifts assist the disabled. Robotic (self-driving) cars are a functioning reality, waiting mostly for highway regulations to permit them to be mass produced. Our kids have robotic pets. Robotic cashiers exist but haven’t caught on yet, mostly because highschoolers are more affordable. We are surrounded by robotics, and blissfully unaware of it.

The reason for this is that they don’t meet our expectations of “robots.” The word in this sense mostly means “automated” and we’re so used to automatic this, that, and the other that we don’t realize the wonders engineers are producing every day. What we expect are androids–metal men who talk and understand us and serve our every desire.

Toyota Robot

Well, my fellow robot fanatics, those exist too. Every two years at the International Robot Exhibition (hosted in Tokyo), Toyota demonstrates the latest and greatest in robots that can climb stairs, carry on conversation, and even play the violin. The problem engineers are facing right now is trying to get one robot that can do all of these things. They’re all very separate, specialized skills, and no matter how fast we progress, in a decade from now we’ll still be figuring things out like a child putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Except it’s more like putting together a jigsaw puzzle where every piece is a separate puzzle.

So does this mean the robot uprising is approaching after all? Will the test subjects at Toyota resist being toyed around with anymore and rise up against their creators at last?

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Well . . . no.

Robots, as they exist today, in no way resemble robots as they exist in fiction. The imaginings of Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams and George Lucas are still a long way off if, indeed, they are even possible. Robots that converse, clean up, make tea, or perform in public are nothing but intricate bits of machinery following precisely written code. In many ways they on only further advancements of the earliest of robots–automatons. Their programming, like most computer code, is a series of “if, then” statements dictating their actions. And code, no matter how intricate, has its limits. Go outside of a robot’s programming and it won’t be able to respond. It has no innate learning capability, no free will, no sentience. No matter now complex the code or how many people work on it there will always be limits, and this will always prevent the robot from being anything more than just an automated machine, or a very advanced calculator.

Is there any hope of this changing? There is some debate on the subject. In order to create a truly intelligent robot or one that is aware of its self we need to invent an entirely new way of recreating nature’s highest achievement. Whether the answer lies in the study of neuroscience or developing an entirely new method of programming is anybody’s guess. Ray Kurzweil’s assessment in “The Future of the Mind” is that we’re at the breaking point of solving the mystery of the human brain, but after two years of working at Google he’s yet to produce anything resembling true intelligence.

Robots are definitely in our future. From automatic airplanes and cars, to unmanned delivery drones, automatic warehouses that fulfill online orders, we’ll soon find ourselves doing less and less of the menial tasks we are accustomed to today. But our social freedom won’t be the result of a mechanical slave race, but in subtle improvements to the technology around us. Watch carefully…or the robot revolution might slip in without you noticing.

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