Robots: Brave New World moves a step closer

Car chassis being welded by robots
Image caption Robots have long been used to assemble and weld the chassis of automobiles

Getting robots to perform boring chores so mankind can spend more time pursuing leisure activities has long been a common theme in science fiction.

But it was in industry rather than in the home where they were first used.

General Motors is generally thought to have been the first company to install robots, to lift pieces of hot metal from die-casting machines. Demand for robots has been growing ever since, even in China where demand for industrial robots in the manufacturing sector is rapidly increasing, according to Gudrun Litzenberger of the International Federation of Robotics,

That, however, does not mean we are heading towards a science fiction utopia of living in a completely automated world.

The other part of the original dream, namely more leisure, seems to have overshot, however. With fewer people needed to operate a robot than to operate a conventional industrial manufacturing plant, many people will end up with more leisure than they would like, Ms Litzenberger acknowledges.

Or rather, there will be more unemployment.

"But if you look at the workers in some industries who work in tedious, unhealthy and dangerous conditions, it is better to use robots for some tasks instead of men," she says.

Besides, the greater accuracy of robots is often favoured by companies.

'Man in control'

Although we refer to them as household appliances, we already have mundane robots that ease the chores in many homes. There are washing machines, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers, for example.

Robots are used to milk cows and thus help to automate farming, and one very important part of service robots are those used by the military.

Some people say the next great step for robotics is when machines can begin to make decisions for themselves; when robots become autonomous and thus no longer depend on humans to operate. But will they take over?

"Although robots are sometimes depicted in science fiction movies as having emotions, they are just machines which need people to operate them," says Ms Litzenberger.

"They still have to be programmed by human beings. Man is still in control."

More 'human' robot

With the progress in robotic technology, the humanoid automaton R2D2 featured in the Star Wars films could soon become a regular household feature.

Image caption Tomorrow's robots will change the way of office workers, the way yesterday's robots changed life for those in factories

The American firm Rethink Robotics has created a two armed humanoid robot called Baxter, which Rodney Brooks hopes will transform how humans work with robots.

"Seventy per cent of current industrial robots are in automobile companies," he says. "We are trying to make industrial robots for everyone else."

It would normally take several months to program an industrial robot, but Baxter can easily be "taught" to do simple tasks such as picking up an object.

Baxter has a screen with eyes, representing a face, which is programmed to look at an object before reaching out for it - much as a human would do.

"We designed it so that a regular factory floor worker could program the robot in just minutes, rather than having months and months of systems integration," says Mr Brooks.

So Baxter can unload boxes, put them onto an assembly line, or put things on conveyer belts. At the other end, Baxter gets things off the line, then packs it into boxes - precisely the sort of simple factory operation that usually employs lots of people.

"It's a mindless, dull task and that's what Baxter is meant to do," Mr Brooks says.

"I'm hoping that people will come up with some ideas for healthcare or caring for the elderly, but who knows what else they might come up with?

"Maybe we'll see Baxters in coffee shops before too long?"

Interfacing with avatars

An army of robots toiling in factories across the world has already transformed the lives of blue collar workers.

Next, the online equivalent of robots - avatars - could soon transform the way white collar workers work too.

Avatars are virtual representations of ourselves, common in online gaming. People working behind desks might soon use similar techniques when talking to their colleagues, according to Ghislaine Boddington at Body Data Space, a company which specialises in how new technology can improve the way we communicate

People will sit next to a transmission-reception screen and send themselves out to colleagues, before seeing colleagues for real in the office.

"It is just like board meetings at the moment with the video conference setups," she says - only the new system allows people to see themselves as full avatars who receive data streams, videos or mobile telephone calls, and are able to work with objects they are designing together - possibly an engine that needs some adaptation where four or five engineers need to look, talk about it, and point at things.

The next step after that would be robot integration.

"It is very interesting because it allows you to have is a mobile tele-presence," says Ms Boddington.

"We could have a small robot next to us with a Skype interface on the face of the robot and if we wanted to take them down to see the production line or to see the new engine we're designing or whatever, they could come with us," she says.

"They could join us at the table and then they could come to lunch with us. They could come out and meet some other people in another room."

She notes that the younger generation do not have that many problems with the concept.

"They're much more able to deal with one representation of themselves and others in different forms, tele-presence, avatars, robotics, and secondly multi-identity, where they accept they will be different in different worlds and environments," she says.

"There are already restaurants in America where there are corner booths which have a video wall and you can meet up with somebody and have dinner with them 'virtually' in a different city."

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