100 years after the word “robot” was written, they are finally taking control
One hundred years after playwright Karel Čapek coined the word robot, we finally have the technology to make science fiction movies a reality.
Ever since the word ‘robot’ appeared in the Czech play ‘RUR’, more and more autonomous machines have become ubiquitous – although so far they have not revolted (yet) against humans. On January 25, 1921, Karel Čapek’s play “RUR” – short for “Rossum’s Universal Robots” – was staged in Prague. It was a sensation. Within two years, it was translated into 30 languages, introducing the word for good into the dictionaries robot. Čapek’s vision of humanity’s reluctant slaves destined to rise and destroy their creators has shaped our view of both automation and ourselves.
In a century-long dialogue between the inventors of fictional and real robots, engineers have mostly been forced to catch up by pursuing or challenging the vision of robots first introduced in books, movies, and television.
Today, however, the reality of robotics in some areas is ahead of, and even ahead of, what those who study robots can imagine.
Heather Knight is an engineer for the Social Robot Project and one of Oregon State University’s 13 major robotics departments. One day in late October, she was shocked to see that the campus was swarming with a fleet of autonomous six-wheeled vehicles manufactured by Starship Robotics. The San Francisco-based company has signed a contract with a campus restaurant to provide contactless delivery. “We’re at a point where even the robotics people don’t know there will be robots on campus,” said Mrs. Knight.
This new visibility of robots – now in stores, hotels and healthcare facilities, as well as on our streets and over our heads – is a determinant of their evolving nature. It is also an external sign of a breakthrough.
Just in 2019 alone, as many as 373,000 industrial robots were sold and commissioned – according to the International Federation of Robotics, a non-profit industry organization that conducts an annual global robot inventory based on supplier data. This number has been growing by approximately 11% annually since 2014, totaling 2.7 million industrial robots in use worldwide.
Industrial robots – descendants of the Unimate robot arm first installed at the General Motors factory in 1961 – are typical production robots that perform tasks such as welding, painting and assembly. They work hard but are not very intelligent. In 2019, according to the federation, 173,000 “professional service robots” were sold and installed. By 2023, this number is projected to reach 537,000 units per year – a triple increase. These are robots that companies use outside of production. They perform a variety of functions, including those related to defense, warehouse automation and disinfection in hospitals.
These robots tend to be much smarter, with advanced software, sensors, and Wi-Fi or other forms of connectivity. Rather than hiding in factories like industrial robots, they can generally do their job next to people, rather than being in fenced off areas where humans are not allowed.
If the current growth rates of both these types of robots continue, and we include robots that provide professional services that are not counted by the robotics federation, such as those produced by companies solely for their own use, then some time in the coming year, service robots will probably overtake number of industrial robots in terms of units sold or installed.
This trend will bring new benefits to companies and consumers and new challenges for employees.
By far the largest share of professional service robots are those used in logistics. Mick Mountz, who founded Kiva Systems in 2003, pioneered the use of software, connectivity, and sensors – coupled with pre-engineered parts such as engines, transmissions, batteries, and tires – to create relatively inexpensive robots that were more flexible and more adaptable than their ancestors, industrial robots.
The main difference between the current automation and what we had 50 or 60 years ago is that we added the software – says Mick Mountz. Wireless connectivity was equally critical – Wi-Fi was new then – and pre-built sensors like the black and white cameras used in the original Kiva robots, adds Mountz.
Amazon bought Kiva in 2012 and became Amazon Robotics. Kiva’s robots and software remain the basis of perhaps the most famous example of service robots today: the rolling pizza-box-shaped “drive units” used by Amazon in its warehouses to carry shelves of merchandise to people who pick and package orders for customers.
The newer type of automation and robotics has yet to touch many areas of our industrial world, from transportation to manufacturing, but it probably will! The next generation of robots has already proven their ability to adapt to an astonishing range of tasks, as seen in a National Science Foundation-funded study by Robin Murphy, director of the Humanitarian Robotics and AI Laboratory at Texas A&M University.
At the start of the global pandemic, Dr. Murphy and her team began investigating how robots can be used to help humans adapt to the effects of COVID-19. She and her team have documented 326 different robots used in 29 different applications, telemedicine and hospital disinfection, quarantine enforcement, delivery, telepresence, construction, agriculture, logistics and laboratory automation. Of these, 87% are existing robots adapted to deal with the new virus!
The sheer number and variety of mature robot technologies that can be used in the fight against the pandemic shows how companies and organizations are currently spoiled by the choice of robots. Dr. Knight of Oregon says the pandemic has likely accelerated the adoption of robots. Although people are generally reluctant to change, wars and natural disasters can inspire very rapid change.
All the things that analysts and data collectors do not classify as robots illustrate just how wide robotics has become, and how it is now possible to transform everyday objects with autonomy.
The full settlement could possibly include all autonomous drones recently cleared for flights in the US by the Federal Aviation Administration, many autonomous vehicles manufactured by Waymo and its competitors, a rapidly growing population of smaller wheeled delivery robots, autonomous ships crossing the ocean, tens of millions of robotic vacuum cleaners, half a century of unmanned spacecraft, and as they become more connected and “smarter”, perhaps even our homes.
Of course, more robots in the wild also mean more failures.
In 2019, the world’s first ‘robot hotel’ was forced to eliminate more than half of its 243 robots because they made life difficult for guests and colleagues.
In November 2020, Walmart gave up its plans to have robots inventoried the shelves of its stores, after discovering that people could do the job more efficiently. Many more tasks that robots seem well suited to have proved beyond their still fairly limited cognitive abilities, forcing companies to hire people to remotely pilot.
Despite these initial problems, we are faced with the likely acceleration of the pace at which robots and automation are challenging US workers – says Mark Muro, senior research fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Automation has always been the most burdensome for blue collar workers’ lives. But as robots move from moving people on the factory floor to moving them in a service industry that is many times larger than production in the US, it could affect the lives of millions more people. According to a historical analysis by Mr. Muro et al at Brookings, recessions like the one we’ve been in are the times when businesses are most likely to replace people with automation. This is because in the event of a recession, incomes drop faster than wages. As a result, automation is moving from a pleasant possession to a perceived necessity for cash-constrained businesses. According to Mr. Muro, even when the economy recovers, automation will not disappear. While in the long run, automation increases economic productivity and creates more jobs, in the short run it can spell unemployment and a deterioration in the labor market. There is also a chronic and worsening problem that America is experiencing increasing economic inequality despite increased productivity due to automation.
The robot revolution is already underway
When Dr. Knight gave speeches ten years ago, she told her audience that the robot revolution had already begun, except that it was behind closed doors, in places like factories and warehouses. It is different now because the robot revolution happens publicly and is therefore inevitable, even personal. In our homes, workplaces, our streets, in our skies, robots are becoming part of our daily lives like never before.
One hundred years after Čapk introduced the word robot into language around the world – the only thing real robots haven’t done yet is run amok and destroy us all, as they have done in his art – and in countless science works ever since. fiction.
But there is one thing he did well: As their ranks grow and they take on more and more tasks in many places, the robots take control in their own way.
source: The Wall Street Journal – 100 Years of Robots