The century of robots

By Ashleigh Viveiros
Garden Valley Collegiate
Winkler, Manitoba

Robot. A word that has only been around for this past century, but an idea that has sparked the imagination of people for many centuries. Man has always looked for ways to cut down on or eliminate the amount of work we have to do. We have also always dreamed of creating something inanimate and giving it life.

Even in ancient times there were myths about statues made into thinking people and about Golems, creatures made alive by the magic of man. The idea of robots have been around for awhile, but it was not until 1921, when Czechoslovakian playwright Karel Capek used the word in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) to mean "forced labour." When the play was translated into English, the word stuck and came to be known for what it is today.


"Robot" makes most people think of Star Wars' C3-PO & R2-D2, or of some of Issac Asimov's creations--either evil robots taking over the planet and destroying mankind, or servant robots who "live" to do practically everything for man. Although we still have a long way to go before either of these extremes may happen, we are on the verge of what some say will be "the century of robots." Even though we may not yet have to fear for our lives, we do have to worry about some of our jobs.

To the average employer, robots are the perfect employees. They can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week , without a single break. They can be reprogrammed easily to improve or change their tasks, they can do boring and repetitive work without complaining, and to top it all off, they rarely make mistakes so their quality never varies.

These advantages make robots stiff competition for today's workers. Already many jobs have been lost to robotization. Nigel Hawkes, writer of the book "Robots and Computers", found that a Chrysler factory in East Detroit increased its output by replacing 200 human welders with only 50 robotic welders. Many other institutions are following suit. Hawkes also found that United States General Electric matches the output of 10 human workers by using robots to assemble compressors. The robots can assemble 320 compressors an hour, 24 hours a day.

Of course, we humans do have one up on the robots. Like any machine, robots can get a glitch and break down. A classic example of which was discussed in Time Life's book on Robotics. 260 painter robots of General Motors assembly plant malfunctioned. They had an all out paint war and sprayed the paint everywhere. Generally, human workers tend not to have paint wars on the job!

Still, one has to wonder, just how close are we to becoming a totally automated society? All we have to do is look at some of the new technology that is coming out and you can see that we are not so far from some of those science fiction movies. Maybe that is what makes some of those robots sci-fi movies so interesting and chilling--the fact that we can see that we may be on the same path.

Robots are even used in medicine, revolutionizing how doctors perform surgery. Even the steadiest doctor's hand can shake at a crucial moment, injuring the patient, but new robotic surgery arms are capable of operating to the nearest tenth of a millimetre. Its motions are much more precise and steadier than the hands of a human surgeon. As a result, surgeries are becoming safer as robots handle the scalpels.

Employers are always looking for ways to cut down on costs. One such way is to lay people off, but in an airplane that is pretty difficult considering that you need a pilot to fly the plane. But before long that, too, may not be an issue. Pilotless planes flown by robots today are still in the prototype stages, and the fact that society might not be ready to step into a 747 knowing that there is no pilot means that it will take quite some time for people to warm up to the idea. But that's okay, because it will take awhile for the technology to be perfected.

One similar area that is most likely to be accepted sooner is driverless cars. Cars that can be programmed to find the fastest, safest route while the driver reads a book or takes a nap. These "smart cars" are already well into development, and some believe that by as early as 2020 they will be on the road for the average customer.

"Black Cye-sr"
Photograph by: Neoforma Design

Household chores are one of the tasks that many people wish they didn't have to do, and a new robot may just solve that problem. The new Cye-sr robot from Probotics is a robot programmed to respond to hand claps. One hand clap and he might fetch you the paper, attach a separate vacuum attachment and he will vacuum your house. Cye-sr is just one of the first steps in eliminating those household chores forever. Who knows? Maybe in 50 years or so we just might have a robot maid like "Rosie" on the Jetsons.

Robots will not only be taking over boring jobs, but dangerous ones as well--jobs like handling radioactive materials, space repair, or deep water exploration. Today, humans have to be controlling these robots because they can not make decisions based on what is happening around them. In the future, this problem may be solved, and robots won't need humans to control their work.

Of course, there will be problems as we advance into the world of robots. As we start to develop robots that can think, make decisions, and possibly even feel, moral questions will undoubtedly arise. Are they actually alive, or are they just imitating life? What laws will need to be passed to ensure our protection? And what about their protection? Do they have rights? Already some futurists are struggling with the possible answers to these questions.

So, as we take the first small steps into the unknown, one can only marvel at the wonders that our technology is producing everyday. Today, robots aren't much more than a dream of science fiction writers. Tomorrow, they may be our counterparts.