The term “robot” was derived from early 20th century literature (Čapek 1920) to denote machines that are apparently able to work independently of direct human control. There is currently no uniform agreed definition of “robot”, although the International Standard Organisation (ISO) 8373 defines them as “an automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose, manipulator programmable in three or more axes, which may be either fixed in place or mobile for use in industrial automation applications.” However, mobile robots are increasingly being designed for applications outside of industry. These must have the facility to acquire information from their environment and to adapt their actions according to this information.
An important element in all robots is provided by computer programming, usually based on research in “artificial intelligence”. Other contributions are provided by electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. One could argue that robotics is a converging technology, because it is an interdisciplinary engineering discipline where multiple fields converge.
In principle robots can come in many shapes and sizes but the typical industrial robot which exists in numbers of many thousands has a single arm, is fixed and programmed to do a single task, such as welding or spraying automobiles. It is isolated from humans for reasons of labour safety. More recent developments have produced so-called softbots, or virtual robots, which are programmed to autonomously perform tasks on the internet and in other virtual environments. There is great military interest in the development of robots capable of replacing human soldiers and superior to them in physical and psychological respects.
Recent interest has focused strongly on robots designed for applications in healthcare, household and military. A pioneering role here is being played by Japan, which is facing a grave aging problem and sees the potential to substitute human work in the fields of application. There is discussion on the degree to which such robots should be anthropomorphic (human-like) to achieve greater acceptance by humans, or to better negotiate environments otherwise inhabited by humans.
In healthcare, for example, work is being done on robots to lift patients in and out of bed. Also, humanoid and animal-like robots (pet robots) could be used as companions for the elderly or others who may feel the need for companionship. The appeal of these kinds of robots is thought to be partially due to their therapeutic qualities, resulting in a reduction of stress and loneliness among the elderly and infirm (Harper, 2008). Robots are being designed for household use as automatic vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers or floor cleaners.
The more complex forms of care also require robots capable of offering affection and apparently able to communicate with their surroundings. Japan has been heavily investing in a research programme with the title Humanoid and Human Friendly Robotics Systems. This has produced a humanoid robot that is 160 cm tall, weighs 90 kg and which can move at a speed of two kilometers per hour (also over uneven surfaces). The European Robot network (EURON, a partnership of 22 European countries) also expects a major role for the use of robots in the household environment. In the short term, a shift of focus is envisaged from industrial robots (especially in the car industry) to other areas including health care (European Technology Assessment Group, 2006).
Robots could be applied in several societal fields. Contemporary robots are used in manufacturing, transport, earth and space exploration, surgery, weaponry, laboratory research, safety as well as mass production of consumer and industrial goods. However, it is predicted that future robots will emerge in the military, household and healthcare. Below are five examples of this.
Service robots in households
Robots could help the elderly and disabled to with certain activities such as picking up objects and cooking meals” (Harper, 2008, p. 20).
Robots as companions
Robots could provide a companion to talk to or cuddle, as if they were pets or dolls. The appeal of these kinds of robots is thought to be partially due to their therapeutic qualities, being able to reduce stress and loneliness among the elderly and infirm” (Harper, 2008, p. 20).
Robots as soldiers
“The Gladiator Tactical Unmanned Ground Vehicle program will support Marine Corps conduct of Ship to Objective Maneuver (STOM) through the use of a small-medium sized mobile robotic system to minimize risk and neutralize threats to Marines across the spectrum of conflict. Gladiator will perform scout/surveillance, NBC reconnaissance, direct fire, and personnel obstacle breaching missions in its basic configuration” (GlobalSecurity, 2010). Military robots are not necessarily limited to serving as weapons platforms but can also have other battlefield tasks.
Robots for therapeutic purposes
“Social interaction of people with mental, cognitive and social handicaps (e.g., autistic children or elderly people with dementia) is essential to their social participation but proves to be a major challenge for healthcare. Robotized systems can support human care and offer unprecedented therapeutic functionality that will develop or maintain social skills which would not be available without these systems or would vanish. Results can be expected in terms of developing basic social skills through play or maintaining skills to deal with everyday life. These robotic systems can be programmed to generate all kinds of communicative reactions (e.g. sounds and colors), invite to move or play games, stimulate friendly face expressions and can also learn to adapt to the individual person” (TNO – Quality of Life, 2008).
“Autonomous miniature robots, the size of a few millimeters, behaving as ecological systems such as a swarm of bees or ants, are seen to have significant commercial and military applications for surveillance, microassembly, biological, medical, or any tasks where a collective action can provide a greater benefit than a single unit or small groups of robots. Although the technological challenges are similar to traditional wireless sensor networks, swarm robots are an order of magnitude smaller and consequently will challenge the technologists even further. One critical aspect is the short range (centimeter) communication link required between the robots to enable them to perform their actions collectively” (Ofcom, 2008, p 61).
Definition and Defining Features
This document is confined to robots in military, households and healthcare, since these are the areas in which robots are predicted to develop rapidly. Robots in these areas can be defined as follows: Robots are machines with motor function that are able to perceive their environment and operate autonomously so that they can replace human effort. Below are a number of features that define robots in military, households and healthcare.
Robots are equipped with limbs able to move in three or more axes and with devices fulfilling the function of hands to enable the performance of tasks usually performed by humans. The robots we are dealing with here are usually mobile and some have wheels, while fully humanoid robots have legs and arms.
Mobile energy system
A mobile robot needs a highly mobile and miniaturized energy system to function.
Robots receive information on their environment which is required to perform the tasks for which they have been programmed. This is usually done with visual perception (cameras equipped with pattern recognition software), but sometimes also with tactile feedback provided by sensors. Through perception robots receive real-time feedback on the environment in which they operate.
Robots have some degree of autonomy or agency. They are programmed to make decisions (based on their perceptions) without direct human intervention. There is furthermore research on robots that program themselves.
Only one of the sources in the database makes a prediction about when robots will be implemented in society and that is in 2015. However, the robots the authors are referring to are ‘next generation robot-controlled system based on artificial intelligence, sensors and tele-control related technologies, mutual sensing technology between human beings and robots’ (Korean Government, 2000). This description is not very specific although it implies that rapid progress is expected in all of the fields mentioned. Considering that this is a very isolated prediction, it is to be regarded as very optimistic and taken with caution.
Relation to other Technologies
In order to build a robot, an engineer or group of engineers draws from electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and AI. These are the building blocks of robotics. Some (Huw Arnall, 2003) have argued that robotics is a branch of AI, because robotics depend crucially on research in AI. The design of robots also relies on human-robot interaction research which draws from (cognitive) psychology and philosophy. Robotics is also related to the ubiquitous computing, internet of things and ambient intelligence visions. Ubiquitous computing is the idea that computing devices are everywhere, they are ubiquitous. Internet of things is the idea that computing devices are increasingly (wirelessly) interconnected and form intelligent networks. Ambient intelligence is the idea that electronic devices in our homes, offices, hospitals, cars and public spaces will be embedded, interconnected, adaptive, personalized, anticipatory and context-aware. Robots in households and healthcare (and perhaps in other areas as well) nicely fit into these visions. Robots are likely to be connected to other computational devices and could thereby be part of an ambient intelligence system.
“The knowledge-processing aspects of robots are, however, still limited: in particular the higher cognitive processes such as perception, decision taking, learning and action still pose major challenges. Despite progress in some areas within cognitive systems and models, the provisional conclusion is that many hurdles still have to be overcome before an artificial system will be created which approaches the cognitive capacities of humans” (European Technology Assessment Group, 2006, p. 36).
“Associated with this reality check is the recognition that classical attempts at modeling AI, based upon the capabilities of digital computers to manipulate symbols, are probably not sufficient to achieve anything resembling true intelligence. This is because symbolic AI systems, as they are known, are designed and programmed rather than trained or evolved. As a consequence, they function under rules and, as such, tend to be very fragile, rarely proving effective outside of their assigned domain. In other words, symbolic AI is proving to be only as smart as the programmer who has written the programmes in the first place” (Huw Arnall, 2003, p. 43). One should concede, however, that not all robots are necessarily based on the assumptions of symbolic AI.
The following ethical issues are mentioned in the database in relation to robots.
Robot autonomy and robots rights
“Many of the major ethical issues surrounding AI – related development hinge upon the potential for software and robot autonomy. In the short term, some commentators question whether people will really want to cede control over our affairs to an artificial intelligent piece of software, which might even have its own legal rights. While some autonomy is beneficial, absolute autonomy is frightening. For one thing, it is clear that legal systems are not yet prepared for high autonomy systems, even in scenarios that are relatively simple to envisage, such as the possession of personal information. In the longer-term, however, in which it is possible to envisage extremely advanced applications of hard AI, serious questions arise concerning military conflict, and robot take-over and machine rights” (Huw Arnall, 2003, p. 57).
Robots overtaking humankind
There is a faction of AI researchers seeking to create an artificial intelligence superior to that of humans. One proponent of this position, Hans Moravec, called a popular book “Mind Children” (Moravec, 1998), arguing that AI would one day inherit the positions of humans as the most powerful intelligence on earth. The idea of a super-intelligence is also at the root of the “singularity”, popularized by Ray Kurzweil (2005): technology exceeding the capacity and processing power of the human brain should be technologically feasible within the foreseeable future. Other approaches are seeking to enhance human beings with results of research in AI and robotics. A well known proponent of the approach is Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, UK.
Čapek, Karel: RUR Rossum’s Universal Robots. Originally published in 1920. Latest publication in 2010 by Echo.
European Technology Assessment Group. (2006). Technology Assessment on Converging Technologies. Retrieved December 28, 2009, from http://www.europarl.europa.eu/stoa/publications/studies/stoa183_en.pdf.
GlobalSecurity. (2010). Gladiator Tactical Unmanned Ground Vehicle. Retrieved March 22, 2010, from http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/ground/gladiator.htm.
Harper, R., Rodden, T., Rogers, Y. & Sellen, A. (2008). Being Human – Human-Computer Interaction in the year 2020. Microsoft Research. Retrieved November 22, 2009, from http://research.microsoft.com/enus/um/cambridge/projects/hci2020/downloads/BeingHuman_A4.pdf.
Huw Arnall, A. (2003). Future Technologies, Today’s Choices. Nanotechnology, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics; A technical, political and institutional map of emerging technologies. Retrieved December 28, 2009, from http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/MultimediaFiles/Live/FullReport/5886.pdf.
ICT2020 – Research for Innovation. Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Retrieved February 14, 2010 from http://www.bmbf.de/pub/ict_2020.pdf.
Kurzweil, R. (2005): The Singularity is Near. When humans transcend biology. New York: Viking.
Moravec, H. (1988): Mind Children. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Korean Government. (2000). Vision 2025 Taskforce – Korea’s long term plan for science and technology development. Retrieved February 16, 2010, from http://www.inovasyon.org/pdf/Korea.Vision2025.pdf
Ofcom. (2008). Tomorrow’s Wireless World. Retrieved 31 January, 2009, from http://www.ofcom.org.uk/research/technology/overview/randd0708/randd0708.pdf.
Wikipedia entry on Robots. Retrieved February 14, 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robot.
Wikipedia entry on Robotics. Retrieved February 14, 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robotics.
TNO – Quality of Life. (2008). Robotics for Healthcare – Personalising care and boosting the quality, access and efficiency of healthcare. Retrieved February 16, 2010, from http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/activities/health/docs/studies/robotics_healthcare/robotics-in-healthcare.pdf.
This description is not concerned with purely mechatronic robots without any artificially intelligent component, such as existing industrial robots.