Humanoid robots can be called a vanity project, where attempts are made to produce artificial life in human image – in a sense trying to play God. But the problem is, we are not very good at it. If people are asked to name a robot, they are likely to name “the Cybermen”, “Terminator”, or “That gold one from Star Wars”.
However, they will not be able to give names like DJI Inspire 2, Cassini, or Tesla Model X. The fact is these are all robots, but they do not follow the sci-fi plot of what robots should be like. In reality, futuristic robots will not be going about on two legs similar to the shuffling C3PO and they will be much more competent than us bipeds.
Popular culture and science fiction have tainted humans’ impression of what a robot is. Karel and Josef Čapek first used the word “robot” in 1920 in a play titled R.U.R. to illustrate an artificial automaton. Ever since then, humans’ vain desires have made the word synonymous with androids or humanoid robots.
People like to think that they are the dominant creatures on Earth, so the perception is mobile robots should resemble them. But the reality is, they should not. Humans cannot fly; they are not very good swimmers, cannot live in a vacuum, and if they want to travel over a mile, most of them will get on some kind of wheeled vehicles.
While bipedal locomotion has served them well, it is very limited and needs years of learning and a huge amount of brain power to perfect. Further, the computer versions of human brain are nowhere near our level and are not likely to be so for generations to come. After almost a century of development, the most sophisticated humanoid robots can merely open a door without falling over too often.
Is a plane a robot?
So what is the role of robotics in the future? Well, it comes down to what one defines a robot as. While there is no unified definition of what a robot is, the general opinion is that a robot is a physical device which can interact with the environment with limited intervention from humans and sense its surroundings. This could either be autonomy, where the robot is able to make decisions on its own, or automation, which involves pre-programmed tasks.
Suppose if one builds a small four-wheeled robot that can travel from point A to point B without crashing into any object, and a map is given to it and told to go, then it will do so without any more instructions. This sounds quite ingenious, but what is the purpose behind this? Now, if the same robot is scaled up so one can sit in it, then it suddenly becomes a driverless car and not a robot. Here, size is the only aspect that was changed.
When people want to fly off on their holidays, they will quite happily get on the plane and notice the two pilots in the cockpit. When people land, they see the pilots are still there and think that they had done an excellent job. However, it is more than likely that the pilots did not actually fly the plane. They would have fed commands to the autopilot and the computer would have taken over the flight controls. For all intents and purposes, the plane is simply a robot and human supervisors take over only if anything goes significantly wrong, similar to a driverless car.
Planes, trains automobiles … and robots
Mobile robots will mark the future of almost all transport. We are already there with robotic aircraft and within the next 10 years, there will be robot cars. Robots are already flying through space and scouring the ocean bottom. There will soon be driverless trams and trains, and drones will become a major part of society. While all these things are robots, they had to be named something else because of societal impression of what a robot is.
These things highlight the fact that humans adapt the technology to fit the environment. Instead of building robots that resemble humans so that that they can serve as a direct replacement, people will begin to see things being made to suit a problem. Why do humans require a robot with intricate hands to pick up a hammer or a pair of scissors when it can rather be built into their arms? Why construct a two-legged robot to climb over debris in an earthquake, when a four- or six-legged one, or a wheeled track, would be much more effective and stable?
Undoubtedly, androids will ultimately be walking around and talking to humans. People will hold a conversation with an android as they do their shopping or pass them wandering down the street. For now, the robots of the near future will not walk like humans. Instead, they will fly, drive, swim or walk on any number of legs but not two.