Here comes the National Robotics Week…

The preface: Here comes the national robotics week. It started in 2009 with promises for roadmaps and displays of U.S. leadership in robotics in the 21st century. Most of us engineers though, started by thinking, “Robots, they sound awesome!, I want to build me one of those”.

Then as we grew up, came the craze for R2D2, C3P0 and Lt. Commander Data. Ah, who doesn’t remember the scene in the StarTrek TNG 2×09 where Maddo finally admits Data is not an “it” but a “he”..alright, you don’t have to be that “into” robotic pulp fiction to be a robotocist or a robotics-scientist.

It would be cool for me to promise, and deliver a post each day for the entire national robotics week, but alas, life can get to be a bit crazy. Instead, I will try to simply write a little bit on robotics and hope if you are new, you learn something and if you have been around the block a bit, you simply enjoy the pleasure of reminiscence.

The origin of the word “robot”

Karel Capek (1890 – 1938) a Czech playwright who led a short, yet influential life coined the term “robot” for his play R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robotics). The play was about these chemical (yes, not mechanical!) inventions that liberated humans from repetitive tasks at first and then caused chaos because of general unhappiness brought about by “tea party” activists that had nothing better to do. Okay, I stretched a bit – there was more unrest following the unhappiness. Oh yeah, the tea party thing was a lie I made up too.

In any case, given the fact that the “end of the world” has played into the fears of folks across generations, the play was a great success and the name stuck!

Robotics and Asimov

Of course, Asimov is somewhat of a father figure for robotics, given the fact that he was the first to use the term “robotics” in 1947. He did not stop there. He created several characters, short stories and fantasies that will one day take us closer to reality.

However, the most important contribution that Asimov made to science and robotics is well known – the three laws of robotics. You would be in for a big surprise if this is the first time you have heard of these laws. Let’s take a closer look.

The Three Laws of Robotics

The three laws of robotics, purported to be seminal to our permanent slaves, were coined, rendered, broken, fixed and written indelibly into our psyches. Yes, these laws are fictitious, science-fictitious if you want to get technical (you may be an engineer, after all!), they are still very pithy.

Asimov did not simply state three lame laws – robots will like the color red, they will speak Swahili and so on..instead, he conceived of robots as beings with a “positronic” brain, allowing them to possess intelligence that allows them to follow the laws under all circumstances. Therein lies the brilliance. Here are the laws:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

It would be heresy to compare these to Newton’s laws of motion, yet, they have their own status in our minds. The brilliance of Asimov lies in the fact that he was able to spin many a tale that took these laws and their interpretations to the edge of suspense, mystery and tenacity.

What is a robot today?

While a robot may have been seen as a chemical or a mechanical slave to the mundane or extraordinary in human affairs, today’s robots range from the far humbler to the more unexpected, yet pleasant devices. Robots range from the vacuum cleaners to ones that help perform surgery, rescue operations or deep sea explorations.

The versatile robot has many definitions, and many interpretations, however a few basics hold:

1. A robot is an autonomous device – that is, it can perform independently based on a concise set of instructions. So, is your car a robot? Not unless, given a road map and an instruction to start, it can start and drive itself to the destination.

2. A robot can perform repetitive or specifically designed tasks autonomously.

Does it sound a bit too mundane? Only till you see that first robot in action or till you build the first one. Of course many people prefer to give complex definitions to robots. However, the above two definitions should suffice to define the most basic or the most complex robots alike.

The reach of robots

Just today, as I was finishing up the blog, I came across an interesting article about the discovery of the world’s deepest undersea vents with the help of a robot titled, “Autosub6000”. Discoveries such as this are changing the way we think about robots and their influence on our lives!

As the National Robotics Week progresses, I will try to put together more on these wonderful devices that have captured our imagination!





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Monday, April 12th, 2010 at 4:01 am • RoboticsRSS 2.0 feed • leave a response or trackback

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