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Webster?s New World Dictionary defines a robot as any anthropomorphic mechanical being built to do routine manual work for human beings. This term was popularized by the Czech dramatist Karel Capek (1890-1938) in his 1921 play Russum?s Universal Robots (R.U.R.). The term has been used in fiction to describe self-controlling machines that resemble human beings. This concept has been the basis of stories starting centuries before, but has become popular due to the writings of science fiction writers and movies. Isaac Asimov?s (1920-1992) book I, Robot started the recent interest in robots and this interest has been fostered by recent movies that glamorize robots, i.e. Star Wars and Bicentennial Man.
The word robot has become an everyday word in our vocabulary and everyday there is news of additional ways that robots can assist us. There is a growing trend of using robots to perform more and more complex tasks, as computers get more powerful so do robots. Is there a time when we will receive diminishing return from the use of additional robots? Will robots eventually rule the world? These questions and more will have to be addressed, as we become more and more dependent on automation to do the repetitive jobs we do not want. To properly prepare for these questions and issues it is necessary for us to examine the history, present day use, and future of robots.
Man has been fascinated by the concept of the formation of non-intelligent life for centuries. One of the earliest myths is of Hephaestus, the divine smith who was the Greek god of fire. He was described in The Iliad as having fashioned girls out of gold whom could move, speak, and think. He was also said to have fashioned and animated a bronze statue for King Minos of Crete. This living statue (robot) tirelessly circled the island, guarding it from invasion.
There are legends that have Jewish mystics creating artificial being out of clay, referred to as a golem from a Hebrew word meaning ?an unformed clay?. The best known golem is that of Rabbi Loew, who was formed in sixteenth century Prague to protect Jews.
Amongst all these legends there was human inventors who were developing devices that would automatically perform acts that could be associated with intelligence. Automatic devices were created that operated by steam, moving fluids, and compressed air. These devices were essentially toys or gadgets of no real use. The first truly useful devices were clocks.
The first clocks were water clocks where the water lifted floats with pointers that pointed at the time, Mechanical clocks were invented in the Middle Ages, which used weights for power. Clocks continued to advance in complexity and it became possible to manufacture objects that mimicked actions that were associated with life. These objects that moved automatically were called ?automatons?
As technology advanced it became possible to imagine an automation that was truly lifelike. One that would be soulless or mindless and which could go out of control, wreaking death and destruction. These fears influenced the story of Frankenstein during this period and influence those who fear robots today.
In 1738 Jacques de Vaucanson created a mechanical duck that was the most celebrated automata of that era. The duck was made of copper and could quack, bath, drink, eat grain, simulate digestion, and voiding. The duck was exhibited all over Europe with great success. Vaucanson soon tired of his invention and turned his talents to more practical matters and invented the first automatic weaving loom. The looms control system was the precursor of today?s computerized systems. It is this computerization that turns ordinary machines into robots.
The new looms could produce intricate patterns easily and automatically depending on what pattern card was selected. These looms and even the inventors met with worker hostility, but the advantages eventually forced their acceptance.
The idea of punched cards led to the development of Boolean algebra, which uses 1 and 0 as on or off. This concept became the basis of digital computers, which are the brains of robots.
The first computers were calculating machines used to tabulate numbers. These machines were used to compile large amounts of information, i.e. 1890 census. The need for increased information lead to increases in the speed and power of these calculating machines. This ever-increasing need was one of the driving forces for the construction of ENIAC , which was the first electronic computer. ENIAC was made originally to compute the angle that an artillery gun should be pointed at in order to hit a certain target. During World War II, this had to be calculated by hand into charts that took forever to make. Since the charts were calculated by hand, they were not always accurate. The ENIAC would make the charts in a lot less time and fairly accurately. The brain of the robot was created and people began to consider the possibilities, and consequences, of ?artificial intelligence?.
In 1950, the USAF and M.I.T. developed a system that used a numerical control system on tape that was interpreted by a computer. The computer read the tape and acted as the machine’s intelligence and automatic controller. This allowed the machine to vary the tasks performed. This led to the first patent for an ?industrial robot? by George C Devol, Jr in 1954.
The advances in computer technology in the 1950?s and 1960?s created some interesting questions. Are computers immobile robots? Are robots mobile computers? Does a robot have to like a human being? The questions are still not answered, if you go to the toy store a robot looks humanoid. If you want to build a robot from a kit purchased off the web, it most likely will look humanoid.
Industrial robots do not have the humanoid appearance; they look more like a small arm. An industrial robot is a reprogrammable, multifunctional manipulator designed to move materials, parts, tools, or specialized devices through variable programmed motions to perform a variety of tasks.
George Devol, a self made engineer with his own business, and Joseph Engelberger, an engineer working in the aerospace industry, formed the world’s first robot company. They met at a cocktail party in 1956 and during the evening exchanged some serious ideas:
50 percent of the people who work in factories are really putting and taking.
Why are machines made to produce only specific items?
How about approaching manufacturing the other way around, by designing machines that could put and take anything.
Being intrigued by Devol?s ideas, Engelberger entered into a business arrangement with Devol. The two men searched for a standard design and after studying various production processes decided on a one armed machine. During research on the processes Engelberger was appalled by the working conditions in many of the factories. In plant he saw women tied to pressing machines by straps tied around their wrist to yank their hands back when the press closed. The workers were like automations that would continue to work until shaken from their hypnotic state. Engelberger predicted that the industrial robot would “help the factory operator in a way that can be compared to business machines as an aid to the office worker”.
They constructed their first robot in 1956 and named it the UNIMATE . The first industrial robot was built, but orders did not come flowing in. The first UNIMATE did not go into operation until 1961, when General Motors purchased one for their die casting plant.
Even after General Motors started buying more of the robots, the manufacturing industry in general was not interested. Engelberger and Devol found them self up against two institutional barriers:
The zone of indifference arising from the average middle managers? fears that robot installations would be too troublesome and economically unjustifiable.
Firms would not recognize the need to automate unless their competition did.
They were not even getting any good publicity from their successful installations, since General Motors was down playing everything because it feared labor opposition.
Something had to be done, and soon before the company was forced to fold. Engelberger commissioned a consulting firm to determine a way to promote the UNIMATE. The solution was actually quite simple; it was a matter of economics. The robot was priced to high; it was cheaper to hire more employees than it was to automate. When the price was reduced, sales jumped six fold. Which puts the right spin on industrial robots. Nobody puts robots to work because they want to make life easier for the employee. They put it to work for economic savings.
The real explosion of industrial robots came because of Japan. The institutional barriers that existed in the States did not matter in Japan. The Japanese were implementers; they went ahead and used technology.
Back in the states industrial robots continued to gain in popularity in the manufacturing process, but it was a slow ride. Then the industry started to change; the automotive industry was feeling the pressure of Japanese competition. General Motors developed an assembly system that robot arms, conveyor belts, and parts sorters. The heart of the system was the robotic arm, which was dubbed the PUMA , programmable universal machine for assembly. Sales requests for the robot arm went through the roof, the age of the industrial robot was here.
THE NEW INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
?Anything that is manufactured is manipulated. Every part is manipulated while it is made. Every part is manipulated while is assembled. A part is manipulated when it is delivered from a plant. Everything is manipulated?
George C. Devol, Jr. (interview, 3/11/83)
The introduction of the robot now allows the advantages of the industrial revolution to be fully realized. The following are some of the advantages:
The use of robots will prevent humans from being forced to function like robots.
Robots being incapable of weariness and resentment can labor indefinitely, not only producing more objects, but also ensuring that there will little or no variation in product quality and safety.
Special features can be added to products without changing the production run.
Robots can do the heavy, dangerous, and tedious work with capacity to seem as though they can make decisions and show judgement.
The robots of the new industrial revolution first made their make in the automotive industry. In the early 80?s 40 percent of the robots in use were in American and Japanese automotive factories. Images of one armed machines lifting automobile frames and turning them for welding robots was a main feature on news and documentaries. All this started to change, as computers became more and more powerful. As the computer grew more ?intelligent? the robots were able to do more and more tasks. The robot today is a main component in almost all manufacturing processes. The following charts show the sales of robots in United States:
Year # of robots $US
1984 5800 $480M
1985 6200 $380M
1986 5400 $320M
1987 3800 $300M
1988 4000 $325M
1989 4500 $510M
1990 5000 $510M
1991 4000 $410M
1992 5250 $500M
1993 6800 $630M
But, even though demand is surging and the U.S. is the world’s second largest robotics user with some 53,000 systems, the Japanese have more than seven times as many robots in use.
The robot industry is booming with companies producing robots to work in area such as:
Medicine – heart bypass surgery, surgical robots work side-by-side with people
Pork production – Increasing market pressures in the meat sector have been the major motivation for the use of automation. The key drivers leading to the use of robotics have been the need to improve work conditions, control the processes and increase yield, while maintaining hygiene standards. Employers in this industry are also faced with a shortage of skilled labor and the increasing demand to reduce price while improving quality and safety in the plant.
Security systems – robots that routinely patrol night after night providing asset protection, situation assessment, and environmental monitoring.
Military – patrol warehouses where high-value, high-risk materiel is stored.
Mobil robots ? Used for mapping rough terrain and hunting for land mines and many more uses.
ROBOTS OF THE FUTURE
?Fifty years, tops, until the robots succeed us,? says Hans Moravec, director of Carnegie Mellon’s Mobile Robot Lab. “When you compare the evolution of mental abilities in animals to similar abilities in machines, robot evolution is going about 10 million times faster.” The director of Survival Research Laboratories, Mark Pauline, speculates that the ultra-intelligent robots of the future, like the predatory machines of the Terminator movies, may eradicate most humans.
This may not be as far-fetched as one might think, with the advent of the global web and the sharing of knowledge. The computers that control the robots are connected to better facilitate the manufacturing process. As the network goes ever larger there is the possibility that it might become self-aware. There are even people who believe that the robot and its artificial intelligence is the next step in the evolutionary chain.
Whatever the beliefs, our dependence on the robot continues to increase. Medicine is one of the largest growing industries. As humans quest for longer and healthier lives, the robot is become one of the main tools. Procedures like corrective eye surgery, heart surgery, diagnostic medicine are all being accomplished by machine. There are even robots being developed that are small enough to travel in your bloodstream and do surgical procedures from the inside.
The introduction of machines into the work place has caused fears and unrest from the very first. Fear of the unknown and fear of replacement has always been a key factor in this unrest. This fear still exists, but the robot is here to stay. It has become a vital part of the manufacturing process, freeing humans to be a more creative part of the process. The robot was created to do away with the brain dead employee by doing task that were repetitive in nature. The robot is extremely successful in this endeavor. This success drives the inventor to look for more amore places to use the robot.
Man has always looked for easier ways to accomplish a task. When prehistoric man pick up a rock to kill his prey man was set on a course. Where that course will end only God knows. The pathway has been rough and bumpy and change has come hard for the majority of people. Look at the friction that the first mechanical loom caused, but human nature being what it is, any thing that makes a task easier is usually excepted.
It is the nature of man to react to change, the status quo rules. The pressure of the masses is making it harder and harder to resist change. Technology continues to increase at an expediential rate and there is no end in sight. Its going to be a wild ride, George Jetson here we come!
1. Webster?s New World Dictionary. 3rd ed. New York. Simon & Schuster, Inc. 1988
7. Isaac Asimov and Karen A. Frenkkel. Robots. New York. Harmony Books. 1985.
11. Understanding Computers ?Robots?. Alexandria. Time Life Books