Robots​—How Far Have They Come?


ROBOTS. What images does that word conjure up in your mind? Some people view robots as friendly​as benevolent partners or helpmates. Others view them as a threat​—machines with superior intelligence, perhaps one day replacing humans. Still, to many others, robots are more the fare of science fiction than of real life.

What about today? According to estimates from a study released in 2006 by the International Federation of Robotics, there are almost one million industrial robots in service worldwide, and of these almost half exist in Asia. Why is there such a demand?

What Robots Are Doing

Imagine a worker who is always on the job, who never complains, and who can work tirelessly 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Well, industrial robots are doing just that as they churn out a host of automotive, electrical, and household items. Robots live up to their name, which comes from the Czech word robota, meaning “forced labor.” It is estimated that in the car-manufacturing industry in 2005, there was 1 robot for every 10 workers!

Robots, though, are no longer confined to the factory. They now come equipped with such things as voice-recognition software, gyroscopes, wireless data communication, Global Positioning Systems, and a range of sensors including those for heat, force, ultrasound, chemicals, and radiation. More powerful and versatile than ever, robots are performing tasks that were viewed as impossible just a few years ago. Consider some examples.

Service. In a hospital in Great Britain, a pharmacy robot with mechanical arms retrieves and dispenses medication within seconds. The U.S. Postal Service has a host of robots that are used to sort, lift, and stack trays of parcels. Snake-arm robots can reach into confined spaces​—such as inside airplane wings—​to perform inspections or repairs.

 Companion. In a nursing home in Japan, elderly patients take turns stroking a cute, furry robotic baby seal. The robot seal is sensitive to touch, light, sound, and temperature, as well as even to the way it is held. It can mimic animal behavior and respond by cooing, blinking its eyes, and wiggling its fins. The robot seal is said to fill a basic human need for companionship and is used as a form of therapy.

Medical. A robot with three arms stands over a patient. Several feet away, a surgeon buries his head in the viewfinder of a giant console to peer at a 3-D image of his patient’s heart. The surgeon controls the robot’s arms as it snips and sews to repair a faulty heart valve. This system allows for minimally invasive surgery because of the robot’s extreme precision of movement, resulting in reduced trauma to the body, reduced blood loss, and quicker recovery.

Household. Just press a button, and a disk-shaped robot goes to work vacuuming your floors. The robot covers open areas in a widening spiral motion and navigates along walls, eventually “learning” the room layout. It detects stairs and avoids them. The robot automatically stops when finished and heads to its recharging station. Over two million of these vacuum robots are now in use.

 Space. A six-wheel mobile robot named Spirit explores the surface of Mars. With scientific instruments and tools attached to its robotic arm, the rover robot examines the composition of soil and rocks. Using its onboard cameras, Spirit has taken more than 88,500 images of Mars, including those of the planet’s terrain, craters, clouds, dust storms, and sunsets. It is one of the robotic vehicles currently in operation on Mars.

Search and Rescue. Beneath the smoking debris of a superheated pile of twisted steel beams and shattered concrete of the collapsed World Trade Towers, 17 basketball-size search-and-rescue robots went to work, looking for survivors. Since then, more-advanced models have been developed, such as the one shown below.

Underwater. Autonomous underwater vehicles are being used by scientists to explore earth’s final frontier​—the ocean. These robotic vehicles are unmanned and self-powered. Other applications underwater include search-and-recovery operations, inspection of telecommunication cables, tracking whales, and minesweeping the ocean.

 How Much Like Humans?

For centuries, man has dreamed of building a humanoid​—a robot resembling a human. But how technically elusive that dream has been! “The complexity of building supercomputers, erecting skyscrapers, or even designing whole cities pales beside the task of imbuing machines with humanlike motor skills, synthetic sight, smell, hearing, and touch, plus something that approximates human intelligence,” observed the journal Business Week.

Take, for example, the seemingly simple task of making a humanoid robot that can walk. Following 11 long years of painstaking research and development​—and after spending untold millions of dollars—​Japanese engineers achieved that amazing technical feat in September 1997. Since then, humanoids have been developed to the point that they can climb stairs, run, dance, carry items on a tray, push a cart, and even pick themselves up off the floor when they fall!

What About the Future?

What is the future of robots? The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration is currently developing a “robonaut,” a humanoid capable of doing dangerous tasks in space. Bill Gates, a well-known leader of the personal computer revolution, says that likely “robots will play an important role in providing physical assistance and even companionship for the elderly.”

Similarly, a report released by the Japanese government envisions a society in 2025 where robots coexist with humans and serve as caregivers, assist in childrearing, and perform household chores. By 2050, researchers hope to see an all-robot soccer team defeat a team of humans. And it is also hoped that within a few decades, machines capable of exceeding human brain power will be developed.

As bold as such predictions may be, not everyone shares the same optimism regarding their fulfillment. Concerning the technical challenges faced, artificial-intelligence researcher Jordan B. Pollack observed: “We’ve fundamentally underestimated how good a programmer Mother Nature is.”

How far robots progress remains to be seen. However, one thing is certain: The ability to love and to exercise wisdom, justice, and power will always remain unique to humans. Why? The Bible clearly states that unlike other living creatures, only man was created in God’s image. (Genesis 1:27) Humans are not cold, calculating automatons. They are free moral agents, who have consciousness and the ability to worship God. May this fact move us to draw closer to our Creator, Jehovah God!​—James 4:8.

[Picture Credit Lines on page 16]

Courtesy Aaron Edsinger

Courtesy OC Robotics

[Picture Credit Lines on page 17]

Courtesy AIST

© 2008 Intuitive Surgical, Inc.

Courtesy iRobot Corp.

[Picture Credit Lines on page 18]

Top: NASA/​JPL-Solar System Visualization Team; left: NASA/​JPL/​Cornell University

© The RoboCup Federation

Greg McFall/​NOAA/​Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary

[Picture Credit Line on page 19]

© 2007 American Honda Motor Co., Inc.