A Robot Future – Developing Technologies, Hopes and Fears

As humans, all of our greatest dreams and biggest fears about technology seem to be provoked by the stirring topic of robotic technologies. Robots have the potential to eliminate a great amount of monotonous work, provide assistance to human workers and serve in highly specialized environments, like hospitals or factories. At the same time, people can be concerned with how this technology will change daily life and worry about increasing isolation among humans or the loss of a job as a result.

Even major names in technology development have showed signs of being spooked by robotics. In a talk given at a technology symposium held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk called robots the “biggest existential threat” to the human race, even arguing for national and international regulatory oversight on artificial (AI) development. Musk is even an investor in robotics, having put money into the AI development firm Vicarious, making his unease over the negative potential of robotics all the more telling.

This holiday season, robots will likely have a much higher profile than they typically enjoy. Retail stores will prove to be a major testing ground for the consumer use of robotic technologies, as Lowe’s recently unveiled a lineup of robotic sales assistants, known as OSHbots, for certain stores. The robot can communicate in multiple languages and can direct customers to the exact location of an item they’re seeking in the store. Collision avoidance and autonomous navigation technologies are incorporated into these sales assistants, helping them travel across large stores safely.

Robots have been here for a while but will likely be taking a much greater role in our daily lives. As we found in researching this technology, there are those who still believe that the utopian robotic future of The Jetsons is still very much within our grasp. In today’s article, we’ll look at some of the current activities in robotic development, break down some of the issues facing robotics technologies in our world and view some of the most recently issued patents from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to protect inventions in this field.



What Robots Can Do

It’s important to note that robotics technologies may have only reached some level of maturity in recent years, but they’ve existed in the popular imagination for generations, and in some cases even millennia. Records that mention automated machinery go back as far as the 3rd century BC, and humanoid automation was first discussed in 1206 AD by Al-Jazari, a renowned mechanical engineer alive during the Islamic Golden Age. In 1495, the Italian engineer and inventor Leonardo da Vinci presented his own plans for a mechanical knight. The first mention of the word “robot” comes from a 1920 play by Czech writer Karel ?apek titled R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). At the World’s Fairs in 1939 and 1940, the Westinghouse Electric Corporation captured the imagination of the globe with Elektro, the first humanoid robot presented to the public. Through the latter half of the 20th century, the potential that robotic androids had for our society fired the imaginations of science fiction creators and scientific innovators alike.

Today, our world is fairly close to realizing some of the more idealistic aspects of robotics. Walking robots that can communicate verbally with their human owners are a long ways off yet, but there are commercially available robots to help with a variety of home tasks. Artificial intelligence has been programmed into vacuum cleaners, non-humanoid personal assistants and even self-cleaning litter boxes. We even learned about one MIT innovation involving a 3D-printed robot which can assemble itself once the parts are heated to a certain temperature. Although consumer robotic technologies for home use are still sparse, these devices show that there have been some attempts at developing these innovations.

Robots can be programmed not only to perform tasks that we don’t want to complete but also to perform jobs that humans can’t alone. This latter concept is why hospitals and medical facilities may be the setting for more great development in robotics in the coming years. Nanotechnologies which incorporate robotic elements have been developed by scientists working at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Germany; these miniscule robots can be programmed to travel through blood or eye fluids to deliver medicines or repair damaged cells within a patient’s body. Robotics can also be used to protect hospital workers in highly infectious settings, an interesting aspect to note with so much public attention on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Recently, a conference on the use of robotics in the fight against Ebola was held at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, MA. Given the incredibly high toll of this epidemic on healthcare workers, robotics could help dispose of contaminated waste or perform basic medical tasks without risking a doctor or nurse’s exposure to the virus.

To envision the future of robotics technologies, many use the “Generation Robots” blueprint laid out by Carnegie Mellon professor Hans Moravec in 1997. By 2010, Moravec predicted that the first generation of robots would be released and operate with an artificial intelligence which was on par with lizards. Looking at the room cleaning and personal assistant robotic technologies currently available, that prediction may not have been far off. By 2020, Moravec forecasted that the second generation of robots would be as intelligent as mice. Human AI levels in robotics could be seen somewhere between 2040 and 2050, if Moravec’s 1997 prediction holds true.


Accepting a Greater Presence for Robotics in Our Daily Lives

Technology which is useful is almost always disruptive. This fact can be a source of the misconceptions and fears over novel technologies in their earliest stages of development. Ever since the days when Ned Ludd’s destroyed of a couple of stocking frames in 1779, there has been some undercurrent of backlash against many technologies for various reasons. It can be instructive at this point to think about our society’s initial thoughts on the telephone and the television and to reflect upon the fact that, despite numerous warnings from parents, no one’s face has yet frozen while watching TV.

Perhaps a reason why Elon Musk and others have shown such a backlash against AI development is the fact that robotics are designed to disrupt everything. Ludd’s stocking frame was used to knit stockings; the coming waves of robotics can be programmed to accomplish just about anything.

Although science fiction dystopias like I, Robot and the Terminator series are evidence of some more visceral fears regarding the ability of robots to control or harm humans, most actual concern about robotic developments involve fears about job security. One study conducted by researchers at Oxford University found that one-half of all jobs currently in the United States could be filled by robot workers instead of humans within a few decades. Among these, the most susceptible positions were proofreaders, butchers, motion picture projectionists, secretaries and utility meter readers. Athletes, firefighters, railroad conductors and conservation scientists can rest easy, for now.

However, the spread of technology is not a death knell for human employment. Another study, completed jointly by CareerBuilder and Economic Modeling Specialists International, found that although one in five American companies have replaced workers with automation, about one-third of the companies that replaced workers with robotics ended up rehiring human workers when the AI didn’t work to the company’s satisfaction. Although there may be some overlap in this figure, one-third of companies replacing workers with automated technologies reported that the decision to incorporate robotics actually led to increased hiring at those firms. Increasingly, there are robotics systems being developed for factory settings that work alongside human workers safely and effectively.



Robotics Technologies That are Currently Being Developed 

We come across new robotics technologies all the time on our Companies We Follow series from many of the corporations profiled. Samsung, Foxconn, Seiko Epson and others have all filed patent applications or been issued patents for robots this year. To wrap up our look at the current development of AI and related tech, we thought it would be a good idea to profile an assortment of patents recently issued within this field.

We were intrigued by one invention listing joint inventors from the Czech Republic that protects a robot designed to offer customers an interactive and user-friendly interface for a milk bar. U.S. Patent No. 8875843, entitled Robotic Milk Bar, protects a robotic milk bar comprised of milk processing and robot filling equipment as well as a retail store/restaurant part with 40-seat capacity, a bathroom, a payment terminal and more within an area of 1,291 square feet. Assigned jointly to Petr Cihak of Cakovicky, CZ, and Jiri Pospisil of Dolni Lhota, CZ, the robotic invention is designed to increase the presence of mini-dairies and provide a variety of milk-based products to customers from dairy farmers without requiring retail store distribution.

From U.S. Patent No. 8857137, titled “Robotic Lawn Mower for Cutting Around Conveyance Member.”

Another patent which caught our eye automates another chore that can require much more work than vacuuming. U.S. Patent No. 8857137, titled Robotic Lawn Mower for Cutting Around Conveyance Member, protects a vegetation cutting apparatus that has a movable carriage which can be conveyed over ground through a conveyance system which is aided by multiple cameras attached to the cutting apparatus which face in different directions. This robotic lawn mower improves upon conventional technologies by incorporating a more energy efficient design, enabling the use of larger cutting widths on the lawn mower. Electric robotic lawn mowers currently utilize a cutting width of 12 inches, whereas typical push mowers have an 18-inch cutting width and self-propelled industrial lawn mowers can have cutting widths up to 52 inches. The patent is assigned to solo inventor Tzvi Avnery of Winchester, MA.

Humanoid robots, or androids, are another area of recent focus for robotics research and development firms. Methods for reducing damaged caused by a falling robot to itself, other objects or people are disclosed and protected by U.S. Patent No. 8880221, which is titled Damage Reduction Control for Humanoid Robot Fall. Assigned to the Honda Motor Corporation of Tokyo, the patent protects a computer-implemented method of controlling a robot during a fall by detecting that a fall is unavoidable and controlling the rotational velocity of the robot so that a target body segment makes the first contact with the ground. This technology is meant to increase safety in environments with physical interactions between humans and robots by equipping robots with a fall management strategy.

From U.S. Patent No. 8880221, which is titled “Damage Reduction Control for Humanoid Robot Fall.”

There are very few physical tasks that robots are not equipped to handle, whether the work is gigantic in scope or is ultra-fine and requires highly precise technologies. The replacement of concrete facades in hydroelectric dams may become much simpler through the technology discussed within U.S. Patent No. 8864240, entitled Vertical or Horizontal Robot for Hydrodemolition of Concrete. This patent, assigned to the Ash Equipment Company, protects a hydrodemolition robot with an elevating platform installed on an elongated tower as well as multiple movable booms which support a nozzle for pressurized material. This invention is intended to serve as an efficient machine for demolition of a crumbling concrete facade on a dam, enabling a new concrete surface to be installed over the steel reinforcement to improve the service life of the dam. Mobile robots for retrieval of items stored in a large inventory are also desired, according to the technology laid out within U.S. Patent No. 8862265, titled Fast-Access Self-Repairing Tape Library Using Mobile Robots. Assigned to computing giant IBM, the patent protects a method involving a mobile robot with a volume of less than 1,000 cubic inches for retrieving one or more 50 millimeter-wide tape reels from a library and reading the tape to recognize an optical pattern. The technology is designed to support the storage of digital data on magnetic tape, which is expected to drop dramatically in price over the coming years, by reducing the time for retrieving tape from a library from an average of 40 seconds to under one second.


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Join the Discussion

2 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Asimov]
    November 18, 2014 11:28 am

    To add to my previous comment, unfortunately, at first, someone would extract every ounce of profit from the endeavor. Still, it’s interesting to think of a possible “some day.”

  • [Avatar for Asimov]
    November 18, 2014 11:27 am

    Obviously just a dream at this point, but it would be cool to one day have robots performing all the jobs that needed to be done, such that time could be spent doing more “worthwhile” things by the population at large. If robots could mine, produce, build, farm, transport, distribute, etc., everything, we could see quite a shift in how humans spend their time, and how much or if at all it was necessary to work for basic necessities (and eventually luxuries).