Robots have come a long way since they entered our vocabulary a century ago. The year 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of Czech writer Karel Čapek’s groundbreaking science fiction play “R.U.R.” (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Čapek’s prescient production, in addition to using the word “robot” for the very first time, sparked longstanding debate on the social, moral and economic arguments over the development and use of artificially intelligent technologies. It is interesting to note that the word robot comes from the Czech for “forced labor”.
The robots in R.U.R are not mechanical devices. Instead, they are artificial biological organisms that resemble humans. While these cognitive humanoids are initially content to work for humans, they eventually rebel and wipe out human life. Today, while robots have become a ubiquitous part of everyday life, fears of a complete robotic takeover have somewhat eased, says Mark Gray, a sales manager with Danish collaborative robot manufacturer Universal Robots.
“The interesting thing about modern robots versus those first conceived in Čapek’s play a century ago is that in the past, people viewed robots with deep suspicion. They were viewed as a threat to jobs, and ultimately as a replacement for humans.”
As robotic technology has developed, Gray believes that perception has gradually changed.
“Modern robots are designed to work alongside humans and to take on dull, dirty and dangerous tasks, rather than replace jobs. People are increasingly seeing the benefits that robots can bring to their daily lives. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, robots can take over risky, frontline tasks such as those in testing laboratories.”
Robots have come a long way since 1920. The manufacturing industry has seen hugely reliable, repeatable, capable robots increasingly improve production efficiency and quality for decades, while the benefits of robotic technology will soon become more obvious in the service and transportation industries, and in the home environment too.
In many ways, Čapek’s robotic conception was a reversal of the realities of technological development. Most experts agree that the advent of fully humanoid, cognitive robots is still many years away. For Mark Gray,
“Advancements towards robots with a human level of cognitive capability have been relatively slow. Nevertheless, at Universal Robots, we believe that the ultimate aim of robotics is to move towards more humanoid robots. We’re already seeing robots such as Pepper being deployed in the hospitality industry and working very effectively.”
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Quite when a fully cognitive robot will become reality is a matter of speculation, although the pace of evolution of robotics technology is undoubtedly accelerating, thinks Paul Williams, a sales manager for KUKA Robotics.
“The gap between the robotic future conceived 100 years ago and where we are today has closed more significantly in the last five years than in the previous forty years of robotics combined. The foundations for today’s evolution were laid throughout those forty years, but the advancement in mobile robotics, dexterous mechanical units and in particular collaborative robots over the last five or so years means Čapek’s robotic vision could become achievable within the next generation’s working lifetime.”