The romanticization of machines can sometimes hide the core truth of robotics: A robot is a device meant to help humans accomplish tasks.
Robotics is a subfield of engineering dedicated to the research, development, and operation of robots. Robotics engineers study how a constructed physical system can supplement or perform a task, or interface with new technology.
What are the main components of a robot?
Robots come in all shapes and sizes all of which require different parts for construction. These are the three general categories of robotics:
While saying a robot has a “brain” does a disservice to what we have in our own heads, they do have a central processing unit called a controller that determines the actions they take in a given situation. These controllers can be programmed to complete tasks as simple as turning a screw or as complex as emulating human social graces and expressions.
As autonomous units, robots need specific mechanical parts to allow them to move freely without direct physical intervention from their human operators. These parts include things like wheels that allow them to travel and motors that propel them. Other components such as grippers allow them to interface with the world around them in a direct and targeted way.
Sensors are what allow robots to recognize their surroundings. They give them the ability to determine things like the size and shape of an object or detect heat, cold, or other properties. These capabilities allow the processors to collect data about the surrounding environment, then move accordingly.
The function of robotics
There are many competing definitions of what actually constitutes a “robot,” but they can be categorized into two main groups:
Independent robots are the classic conceptualization of robots: completely autonomous systems that can follow their programming without the need for direct physical intervention from a human operator.
The practical applications of independent robots in society are varied. However, they sometime replace humans entirely for the execution of specific tasks. These tasks are often mindless routines or dangerous jobs. For example, robots have been one of the principal drivers behind the automation in factories as well as having found a home in law enforcement as a way to remotely dispose of bombs.
This form of robots has been the most disruptive to society at large; all but eradicating many low-wage manufacturing jobs and creating autonomous weapons of war that have been adopted by the U.S. Military.
A more recent development in robotics has been the creation of non-autonomous robots that are meant to interface with humans in ways that enhance their already existing actions. This can commonly be found in medicine and the field of prosthetics where robots are programmed to act in tandem with the human body itself, such as in the case of Johnny Matheny, the first man to live with an advanced mind-controlled robotic arm.
The future of robots
Will robotics take my job?
While we probably won’t see the Terminator hunting anyone down in our lifetimes, the field of robotics presents us with visions of fantastical futures that hardly resemble our present-day society. In particular, the intersection of robotics and AI provokes a few questions about the nature of robotics moving forward. As we make smarter and smarter machines, how will they integrate with their human creators? What roles will they play in society?
Attempting to predict the future serves little purpose; great strides have been made in artificial intelligence and robotics in the past few years, but the development of intelligent machines is still a nascent field. Predicting what they will look like at the height of their development would be like asking Thomas Edison to describe an iPhone. The cultural framework simply doesn’t yet exist.
This by no means precludes us from setting some guiding principles in the present to ensure harmonious adaptation of this technology in the future. In fact, people such as acclaimed science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov have been doing so for nearly 80 years through works like the Foundation Trilogy. Ultimately, only constant critique and evaluation will allow us to advance without potentially disastrous consequences.