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How Robots Will Affect Future Generations
by Brian Huse, Director, Marketing & Public Relations
Robotic Industries Association Posted 12/13/2001
What does the future hold for robot applications? How will robots affect society in five years; 10 years; 20? These are typical questions received by Robotic Industries Association. Following is a look forward based on a correspondence I recently sent to a student to address in a small way a very big question: 'How will robots affect future generations?'
Robots in Your Every Day Life
Let's start with life as we know it. Did you know that your life is affected virtually every day by robots?
If you ride in a car, an industrial robot helped build it. If you eat cookies, such as the Milano brand from Pepperidge Farm, there are robot assembly lines to help make and pack them. The computer you use to send e-mails and use for research almost certainly owes its existence, in part, to industrial robots. Industrial robots are even used in the medical field, from pharmaceuticals to surgery.
From the manufacturing of pagers and cell phones to space exploration, robots are part of the every day fabric of life.
Robots: Past and Present
Thirty years ago, a person who pondered robots would probably never have guessed that robot technology would be so pervasive, and yet so overlooked. A 19 year-old author named Isaac Asimov, who in 1939 started writing science fiction about humanoid robots, inspired some of the first popular notions about robots. Before him it was Karel Capek, a Czech playwright, who coined the word 'robot' in his 1921 play 'R.U.R.' And even in millennia past, some folks conceived of artificial people built of wire and metal, even stone, known by some as 'automatons,' or manlike machines.
Today, robots are doing human labor in all kinds of places. Best of all, they are doing the jobs that are unhealthy or impractical for people. This frees up workers to do the more skilled jobs, including the programming, maintenance and operation of robots.
A simplified definition of a robot is that it must be a device with three or more axis of motion (e.g. shoulder, elbow, wrist), an end effector (tool), and that it may be reprogrammed for different tasks. (This disqualifies most of the toy 'robots' sold at stores.)
Robots that work on cars and trucks are welding and assembling parts, or lifting heavy parts --the types of jobs that involve risks like injury to your back and arm or wrist, or they work in environments filled with hazards like excessive heat, noise or fumes-dangerous places for people. Robots that assemble and pack cookies or other foodstuff do so without the risk of carpal tunnel injury, unlike their human counterparts. Robots that make computer chips are working in such tiny dimensions that a person couldn't even do some of the precision work required.
In the health industry, robots are helping to research and develop drugs, package them and even assist doctors in complicated surgery such as hip replacement and open heart procedures. And the main reason robots are used in any application is because they do the work so much better that there is a vast improvement in quality and/or production, or costs are brought down so that companies can be the best at what they do while keeping workers safe.
Robots Keep the Economy Rolling
High-quality products can lead to higher sales, which means the company that uses technology like robots is more likely to stay alive and vital, which is good for the economy. In addition to improving quality, robots improve productivity, another key element to economic health.
To think about how robots might affect future generations, consider what happened a few hundred years ago when the industrial revolution began. For instance, in 1794 Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, and later the concept of interchangeable parts for mass production of manufactured products. His inventions spurred growth in the United States, increased productivity in a variety of industries, and created more job opportunities as companies throughout the world adopted his technology and ideas.
In 1865 John Deere invented the cast steel plow blade, giving farmers a tool to greatly increase productivity. The light bulb came in 1880. The airplane appeared in 1906. Assembly lines, TVs, plastics, and many other inventions came in the decades to follow, further changing the face of the industrialized world.
In 1961, Joseph Engelberger sold the first industrial robot to General Motors Corporation, where it performed machine loading and unloading duties in an environment that was hot and dirty, and in fact dangerous to humans. That was 40 years ago...before personal computers and the Internet. A lot of technology evolved that helped make the industrial robot the affordable, successful machine it is today.
A Future in Service Robots?
Who knew all the effects the robot would have? Maybe Mr. Engelberger, often referred to as the 'Father of Robotics,' could foresee much of what was to come. He eventually sold his company, called Unimation, and became a pioneer in service robots, a sector of robotics in its infancy, but which is predicted to eventually exceed the market for industrial robots. He lectures even today that service robots must have the following criteria to succeed:
- Magnificent physical execution (they have to be really, really good at what they do);
- Sensory perception (one or more of the five senses, like sight, touch, etc.);
- A 'quasi-structured' living environment (things have to be predictable)
- Prior knowledge of their environment and duties (programmed with expert skills and knowledge);
- A good cost/benefit standard (reasonable cost compared to expected duties).
These are high standards indeed! Most people can do service tasks very efficiently compared to any current robotic alternative. Most service robots would cost far more than human labor does at this time (although Mr. Engelberger did demonstrate a successful business model for a cost-effective system for hospital robot 'gofers' when he created the HelpMate company).
The opportunity for robotics arises when you ask if there are enough skilled people to do certain tasks at a reasonable price, like elder care, an industry greatly lacking in skilled labor and laborers. Much thought has been put into development of robotic helpers for the infirmed and elderly.
Untapped Robot Applications Abound
According to the RIA, 90% of companies with robotic manufacturing applications have not installed their first robot. Yet more than 115,000 robots are installed in the U.S. today, making it second only to Japan. Material handling and assembly are among the leading applications poised for growth within the robotics industry.
The future for robots is bright. But, how will robots affect future generations? Sometimes you can get ideas for the future by looking into the past and thinking about the changes we've seen as a result of other great inventions, like the cotton gin, airplane or Internet. Perhaps one day we will have true robotic 'helpers' that guide the blind, assist the elderly. Maybe they'll be modular devices that can switch from lawn mower to vacuum cleaner, to dish washer and window washer.
Maybe one day 'robots' will be so small they will travel through your blood stream delivering life-saving drugs to eliminate disease. Perhaps they will have a major role in the educational and entertainment industries. Law enforcement and security may become major users of robotics. (Robots already have been deployed for such hazardous tasks as bomb disposal, hostage recovery, and search and rescue operations, including at the World Trade Center.)
Certainly, robots will always have a role in manufacturing. They are invaluable to the trend of product miniaturization, and they provide an economical solution for manufacturing the high-quality products mandated for success in a global economy.
Industrial robots are somewhat underrated in today's society, but the world owes much to the productivity and quality measures imparted by robotics. Their effect on future generations may well be the assistance they provide in manufacturing faster computers, more intelligent vehicles and better consumer and health products.
Donald A. Vincent, Executive Vice President, RIA, a 25-year veteran of the industry wrote this assessment about the future of robots in the Handbook of Industrial Robotics:
'After a quarter-century of being involved with robotics, I have concluded that the robotics industry is here to stay. And robotics does not stop here. Sojourner (was) the first, but certainly not the last, intelligent robot sent by humans to operate on another planet, Mars. Robotics, robots, and their peripheral equipment will respond well to the challenges of space construction, assembly, and communications; new applications in agriculture, agri-industries, and chemical industries; work in recycling, cleaning, and hazardous waste disposal to protect our environment and the quality of our air and water; safe, reliable and fast transportation relying on robotics in flight and on intelligent highways. Robotics prospered in the 1900s; it will thrive and proliferate in the twenty-first century.'
Throughout the year, more than 10,000 visitors from all over the world turn to Robotics Online for information to help them understand the industry. This editorial is an 'open letter' to students and others with an interest in robotics, and is dedicated to Lisa from Australia, who wrote: 'I am 13 and I was wondering if you had any information on how robots/robotics might effect the future/future generations?'