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  • Writer's pictureAiman Omer || أيمن عمر

Robot: Between Reality and Fiction

When you hear the word robot, what comes to your mind? Do you think of a machine that looks like a human begins, cleaning your house and preparing your meals? Or a moving machine with wheels that deliver your order to your home? What about those mechanical arms that work in the factories welding and assembling cars and electronic devices? The term robot is widely used in science fiction movies, as well as economic reports that warn about rising unemployment. It is not easy to accurately specify the device or technology that comes under the word robot. This will make us wonder whether robots are a great threat to us or if they are useful devices that can make our lives easy.

When you search for the definition of robot you will find many definitions for the word robot.

A Robot is a Programmable, multi-function manipulator designed to move materials, parts, tools, or specialized devices through variable programmed motions for the performance of a variety of tasks.

Defined by: Robotic Institute of America, 1979


 A machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions Automatically.

Oxford Dictionary


 An automatic device that performs functions normally ascribed to humans or a machine in the form of a human.

Webster Dictionary 


These are just some examples of the definition of a robot. If you ask some robotics scientists or researchers for the definition of a robot, they might have their own definitions of robots.

Looking at the definitions above, although they provide different descriptions, they simply say that a robot is a device that can perform a task like a human. This is the general impression about robots. People believe that robots are machines that can replace humans and take their jobs away. This belief is also backed by research and reports that talk about the rise of unemployment due to the development of robots. One of the examples that I refer to is the book "Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future" by Martin Ford. The book warns about the elimination of many jobs due to the implementation of advanced technology in many industries. Most of the technologies mentioned in the book are software apps and telecommunication devices such as e-banking and MOOC. However, if you ask any robotics engineer or researcher, they will tell you that software apps or telecommunication devices are not robots. So why there is a wide confusion and disagreement about the definition of robots?

To better understand this matter, we must go back to history and search for the origin of the term Robot. The term Robot appeared for the first time in the play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) in 1920, published by the Czech writer Karel Čapek. The word Robot came from the Czech language and it means Forced Labor. In the R.U.R. play some actors played the roles of Artificial creators called Robots (the picture on the right side). The play influenced the idea of machines that look and act like humans in many science fiction stories and movies. One of the famous stories of robots is the novel “I, Robot”, which was written by Isaac Asimov in 1942. Isaac Asimov introduced the term Robotics in his novel and the three laws of Robotics.

The world has seen the birth of the first robot in the world with the invention of UNIMATE in 1954. UNIMATE was a programmable manipulator that can pick and place objects. It was introduced to manufacturing in 1961 when a UNIMATE unit was installed on the production line of a General Motors plant in New Jersey. UNIMATE was in the form of an arm that was fixed in one location. That was the robot shape that people saw in the real world. It was unlike the human shapes that were presented in science fiction stories. But in less than a decade a new form of robot design was introduced to the public in 1969. Stanford Research Institute (now called SRI International) developed Shakey, a mobile robot capable of recognizing its surroundings using its vision system. Unlike UNIMATE, Shakey did not have an arm to pick objects. It was more like a vehicle that moved with its wheels.

The robotics community witnessed an important point in 1973. Professor Ichiro Kato from Waseda University in Tokyo developed the humanoid robot WABOT. WABOT was a robot that was similar to the robots people used to see in science fiction movies. It could walk with its two legs, grasp objects with its hands, and communicate with people in Japanese. Although WABOT did not see any real-world applications, it opened the path of wide research activities in the robotics field. Many types of robots were developed in the following decades for different applications such as medical and space exploration.

Today's robots are working in many different applications. Production lines in factories are the places where you find most of the robots. According to the last data from the International Federation of Robotics, there are more than 3.9 million robots in factories worldwide. More than half of those robots work in the automotive and electronics industries. Robots have been working in the manufacturing sector for more than 60 years. Universities around the world give Robotic courses that teach the design and control of the robot manipulators that are used in factories. In recent years, we have seen the implementation of robots in many non-industrial applications. Now there are robots working in warehouses moving boxes and picking items. The logistical sector has seen a huge implementation of robot technology in the last decade. Hospitality is also affected by the development of new intelligent robots. Robots delivering food and drinks inside restaurants have become more common after the COVID-19 pandemic. Other sectors such as health care and agriculture also see more implementation of robot technology.

With the advancement of the AI system, sophisticated sensors, and fast computational power; robots are becoming more capable of performing tasks that were considered impossible just a decade ago. Recently, we have seen some demonstrations of humanoid robots that can walk, manipulate objects, communicate with people, and sort items; in a way we have never seen before except in science fiction movies. However, we are still facing a lot of challenges in robot development. It might take years before we see robots work around us and do tasks as we imagined and saw in the movies.

Looking at the history of robot development, we can see that science fiction stories are the main drivers for robot development. For decades science fiction movies have shaped the image of robots in people's minds. Whenever people think of robots, they think of machines with advanced technology that can take the human place. Even from a professional side, many researchers use the term robot to refer to any device or system that can do human work. All of this has contributed to the impression that robots might pose a great risk to humanity. Many people think that robots will one day control the world, even though there might be a risk of AI getting out of control it won't be able to take control of the world as it is shown in the Terminator movies.

With such an image of robots, we can see that there is a huge gap between the reality of robots and their public view. The inaccurate knowledge about robots and the disagreement about their definition has created many problems. Robot engineers and developers have to deal with most of these problems, which we can summarize in the following two points:

  1. Mismatch Expectation: Many people think that a robot can perform complex tasks as humans can do. Most robots are designed to perform a single or limited number of tasks. Even performing the task, in most cases; can be done under certain conditions and arranged environment. A cleaning robot can only clean the floor, it can not wipe the windows, and a restaurant service robot can only deliver the order to the customer's table, it can not place the food on the table. The mismatch between the robot's capabilities and the user's expectations is a huge challenge for robot developers. Sometimes it could be very hard for robot companies to market their new robots to clients and investors who have limited knowledge about robots. We are expecting to face this challenge even harder in the future with the rapid development of robots and their implementation in many new applications.

  2. False Blaming: With the rapid development of new technology, we can see its impact on the job market. Although there are many factors, whether social or economic; that contribute to the rise of unemployment, there is one word that is used a lot: Robots. Many reports and research use the term Robot to point to the technology that takes our jobs. Frankly speaking, I have never found any research that confirms that robots cause the lost of a high number of jobs in the industry. Even the books that discuss the problem of unemployment, point to the increased use of the Internet and computer software as the main cause of job transformation, even though the word robot is put in the book title. The excessive use of the word robot whenever the problem of the rise of unemployment is discussed, puts the blame on robot developers and accuses them of causing the problem. We even hear about the proposal for taxing robots due to their role in the unemployment problem. Robot developers are always in the position of defending themselves against such blame trying to prove that robots are innocent.

We are expecting to see a huge development of robot technology in the coming years. The implementation of robot technology into many applications will make a huge impact on the economy and society. To minimize the negative effects of the robot implementation, people need to know the robot technology much better. The real robots are not what you see in the science fiction movies. The real robots are devices that are designed to do a specific task under human guidance. If we use them right, we can improve the efficiency and productivity of our work.

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