Editorial Feature

The Rise of Advanced Robotics

Image Credits: shutterstock.com

What do the actors Arnold Schwarzenegger, Alan Tudyk and Ben Burtt all have in common? They all play the role of a robot in a future where robotics have become so advanced that they have replaced, if not taken over, the majority of human activities.

The concept of 'Artificial Intelligence' and the quest to automate our lives has been around since ancient times. In greek mythology, it was said that Hephaestus invented Talos, a giant bronze statue charged with the defence of Crete who was eventually defeated by Media.

Fast forward to the 15th Century, when the first recorded design of a 'humanoid' robot was drawn by Leonardo da Vinci. The designs in question were mechanised knights in armour able to move in a similar way to humans. This is likely to be based on Da Vinci's anatomical research recorded in the Vitruvian Man.

The term 'robot' was coined in 1921 by the brother of Czech writer Karel Čapek. He wrote a science fiction play entitled Rossum's Universal Robots and his brother Josef created the term based on the Czech word for servitude, 'robota'.

Since the phrase was spawned, robots have become synonymous with the science fiction genre. Films, books and television programmes have predicted futures where hordes of robots have become servants of humanity, and many then going on to suggest that these robots will eventually rebel against their creators.

The Rise of the Machines

In recent years robotic technology has advanced at a rapid rate.

Developers are frantically trying to emulate human behaviour in robots and the most tricky aspect seems to be imitating the dexterity of our hands.

In 2013 Joel Gibbard established the 'Open Hand Project' with the goal of developing his robotic hand.

This robotic prosthetic hand, named the 'Dextrus', can aid amputees in performing tasks with similar efficiency to a human hand.

It is far more intuitive than other robotic hands to date and uses sensors to calculate the force it should be exerting when gripping an object.

Another advancement in robotic prostheses was recently published by MIT. Researchers there have developed a robotic device which can enhance a human's ability to grasp objects. This device can be worn around the wrist and essentially works by giving the user an extra two fingers adjacent to the thumb and little finger. The extra fingers work in synchronisation with the user's own fingers and don't require direct operation.

Harry Asada, the Ford Professor of Engineering in MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering, described the device as "an extension of your hand". He went on to say "you do not need to command the robot, but simply move your fingers naturally. Then the robotic fingers react and assist your fingers."

This promising technology can hopefully lead us to a future where people with disabilities or those who lose limbs in accidents can have a fulfilling life without limits.

"Never Send a Human to do a Machine's Job"

The main focus of science fiction films tends to be robots betraying their creators and revolting against society, such as in I, Robot and the Terminator saga. In the futures portrayed in these movies, humanoid robots were created to help humanity with regular household tasks and in Terminator's case, the military defence of a nation.

Humanoid robots, such as ASIMO, and robots which resemble animals are being developed thick and fast. One such recent example in the news was the development of origami-inspired robots by the Wyss Institute, Harvard University. These robots were built out of Shrinky dinks™ and paper, and were programmed to self-assemble and then walk away afterwards.

Self-folding robots

Video sourced from: YouTube - Harvard University

After experimenting with a number of different robotic inventions over the past few years, this creation is the first able to self-assemble without the need of human intervention.

The folding aspect of the movement is said to be inspired by nature; the way that linear amino acid sequences fold into complex proteins.

This news followed on from a similar development by MIT of a phase-changing material which is able to transist between being soft and hard.

This material could eventually lead to robots being created that could squeeze through small gaps and even repair themselves.

The material, made from foam and wax, upon heating becomes soft, due to the wax melting and when cooled, the wax solidifies thus making the material hard again.

This is achieved by threading a wire through the material which has a current run through when wanting to induce the 'soft state', and removed when wanting the material to be in its 'hard state'.

A 3D printer was used to construct the material for further testing and proved to be even more successful than the original prototype. The developer of the material, Professor Anette Hosoi from MIT, suggested using stronger materials rather than wax, such as solder, could be even more effective.

"One Day They'll Have Secrets...One Day They'll Have Dreams"

It now seems that research into advanced robotics is heading towards making robots autonomous, particularly in the case of Harvard's self-assembling robot, and able to control their own thoughts and actions.

By 2050 it is predicted that robots will have 'brains' able to carry out 100 trillion instructions per second, enough to compete with human intelligence. With that in mind, movies like Terminator and I, Robot, where robots and machines rebel against humans and take the world for themselves, do not seem as fictional as they once did.

The UK Office of Science and Innovation's Horizon Scanning Centre even say that robots may eventually become so advanced that they could request civil rights alongside humans.

That being said, advanced robotics is certainly not something we should fear.

Advances in robotics have led to significant improvements in healthcare and other sectors, in fact before the turn of the next decade it is forecast by Japan's NISTEP 2030 report that robots will be able to perform low-invasive surgery and we will even have access to household robots which could improve the quality of life for people who struggle to carry out simple household tasks.

The future of advanced robotics is very exciting indeed and technologists and science fiction fans across the world should definitely be keeping their ears to the ground for news of developments every single day.

Sources and Further Reading

Alessandro Pirolini

Written by

Alessandro Pirolini

Alessandro has a BEng (hons) in Material Science and Technology, specialising in Magnetic Materials, from the University of Birmingham. After graduating, he completed a brief spell working for an aerosol manufacturer and then pursued his love for skiing by becoming a Ski Rep in the Italian Dolomites for 5 months. Upon his return to the UK, Alessandro decided to use his knowledge of Material Science to secure a position within the Editorial Team at AZoNetwork. When not at work, Alessandro is often at Chill Factore, out on his road bike or watching Juventus win consecutive Italian league titles.

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