It’s 2017 and the world is filled with people who don’t blink twice at the thought of a self-driving vehicle, phones that can seemingly converse with their owners, and houses with auto-regulated temperature controls. In sum, robots are everywhere, and it happened so subtly that many people may not even realize that they interact with robots on a daily basis. Technology is not so far advanced that Bicentennial Men are common household appliances – yet. The fact is, automation is progressing so rapidly that having your very own Rosie the Robot Maid may not really be all that distant of a dream.
What is a robot, really?
As anybody who’s ever sent a text message knows, words have a funny way of being interpreted in ways the sender never actually intended. If most people don’t realize that they deal with robots on a daily basis, a large part of this has to do with the fact that pop culture often gives robots a face. Indeed, one of the first things that pops into mind when people think of robots are naturally the human-like Bicentennial Men or Rosie the Robot Maids of their childhood movies and cartoons. Others think of killer villains, which is no surprise given that the word ‘robot’ was born out of a 1920 science-fiction play where a robot-rebellion leads to the demise of the human race.
However, it should be noted that many robots do not actually have a face. In fact, the consensus among robotics is that for a robot to be a robot, all it needs is a body (not necessarily a human-like one), and the ability to do an assigned task, however small and simple. Limbs and faces and names are not at all necessary.
That said, coming up with a more restrictive definition is the equivalent of entering stormy waters. Roboticists are divided when it comes to deciding what exactly falls under the category of ‘robot’. For some, common household items like dishwashers and washing machines can be considered robots. For others, robots need to be a whole lot more self-sufficient (in this school of thinking, a Roomba could be classified as a robot). Whatever the definition, the question of control is key – a robot is only a robot if it can operate itself with limited human guidance.
As automation becomes more and more sophisticated, it has become increasingly clear that many basic human jobs can and will be replaced by robots in the near future. There are entire career streams dedicated to robot technology at both the university and college level, training students who may one day boast the title of ‘professor of mechanical engineering and materials science’, ‘coordination chemist’, ‘robot technician’ or ‘electromechanical technician’, amongst a myriad of other positions related to this expanding field. These are the people who are paving the way for better automation in factories and in homes.
The Yale-CMU-Berkeley (YCB) Object and Model Set is one initiative dedicated to introducing standardization to the world or robotics research. The YCB Set provides tools, standards and benchmarks to kit-owners so that research may be conducted and evaluated by different labs around the world in an impartial, comparable manner. With the introduction of standardization to the field, labs can compare results with the aim of perfecting deceptively simple – but extremely sophisticated tasks – such as getting a robot to pick up a mug of tea.
Only when robots have reached the point of being able to do such nimble tasks will they truly be able to infiltrate the world’s living rooms as dreamed of by pop culture, dusting the fine china and flipping the eggs to get that perfect over-easy yolk. Until then, the role of nanny or janitor must simply be left to the humans in the world.
That said, for those who are itching to interact with robots that are more sophisticated than the neighbour lady’s Roomba, the manufacturing industry is one place where automation is already extremely well integrated. Everything from processing food to building cars is now linked to technology and robotics to some degree, and the need for trained employees able to work with this sophisticated technology is only poised to grow. Universities, colleges, tech boot-camps and online technology courses offering a ‘certificate of completion’ provide different avenues for robot-enthusiasts to develop the right skillsets to work with robots today.
An automated future: disaster or a dream?
Given that this is reality and not a dystopic science-fiction movie, there probably won’t be one single day that the world will be able to look back on and say “there, that was the day robots took over the world”. Just as electric vehicles, smartphones and the Internet of Things have slowly and subtly integrated themselves into society, so too will the more sophisticated robots, able to do things like build a model plane or put together a delicious breakfast casserole. The question then arises: is this the fodder of dreams or of nightmares?
Self-driving cars may one day save countless lives, but they certainly will not be saving jobs. Professional baking robots may one day make a better cake than a reality-TV chef, but then what will happen to all those people who trained as chefs and bakers? Everything from ethics to economics will have to be taken into account by all levels of society, from homeworkers to the loftiest of philosophers, as robots move from labs and into factories and homes at unprecedented rates.
An automated future is not something that can be analyzed in a black and white manner. It will require serious discussions and the enactment of thoughtful legislations. Neither dream nor disaster, an automated future will be a double-edged sword, strongly dependent on the human beings who will have to decide how to best restructure society in response to the latest technologies. If there is anything to fear, society should not fear death by robot rebellion, but rather demise at the hands of seemingly dull things like poor planning and policy-enacting (which in the end are rather human decisions to make).