Although the first industrial robot was developed in 1959, the last two decades robots were often still perceived as futuristic role-playing manifestations. Nowadays many people still have a similar perception of robots, what gives them the wrong idea about robotics and its implications. Robots are not science fiction. They are a reality. As time propels, robots will get even more advanced. But there will not be a hostile takeover of our society, as the science fiction scene predicts. Due to false perception, many people get anxious by the idea of human-machine collaboration. Let us do a reality check and get to the bottom of it. What exactly are robots and how do software and physical robots differ from each other?
The Sci-Fi confusion
Many Baby Boomers probably get flashbacks to Star Wars when they think of robots, while Generation X immediately thinks of Robocop-like or Transformers-like creatures. Generation X and Y are presumably familiar with yet the newer versions of both Star Wars and Transformers. Anyway, this is all science fiction. Reallife robotics is definitely not.
During the industrial revolution factories were slowly taken over by robotical operations. Self-steering machines took over quite some repetitive tasks, but did not seem to reduce the total number of jobs. Yes, workforces got frustrated at first by the automation. People have a hard time coping with change, until they find out it will make their lives easier and more interesting.
How to define a robot
Now robots have already been so deeply integrated into our society, that it seems almost impossible to imagine a world without these technical appearances. Robots are no longer only present in factories; they are everywhere, including in our offices. Sometimes physically, but mostly in an invisible form and always enhancing the quality of work.
A characteristic that people like to attribute to a robot is the resemblance to a human. Such robots are called Androids. However, many robots do not resemble a human at all. In order to define something as a robot, it should meet the following characteristics. A robot should be able to:
- Operate autonomously to a certain degree;
- Sense and manipulate its (virtual) environment;
- Perform tedious, often repetitive tasks;
- Have some kind of intelligence.
Where the idea came from
In order to define robots, we have to go back in time and briefly dive into the history of these. Although it is often thought that robots have only been around since the 20th century, it turns out the history of robots goes back to an astonishing thousand years ago, or at least the idea of
But it was not until 1920 that the word robot was firstly introduced, in a play by Czech writer Karel Capek. It is derived from the Czech word robota which means “extracted work”. Originally it referred to the work a medieval peasant was obliged to do for his lord without receiving any form of payment.
Within many mythologies of different cultures, the idea of a robot has been around for thousands of years. Many early engineers have attempted to build machines which would be able to operate by itself. One of the most striking examples of this is the design of a robot-like concept of an autonomous flying pigeon many years BC. This pigeon, powered by steam, was able to fly for about 200 meters before it ran out of steam. The aim of this “robo-bird” was to do scientific research on how birds fly. Of course, this image is far from resembling the robots that now co-exist in our societies. The pioneer of the ‘modern robot’ as we see it today is George Devol, who in 1954 invented and created the ‘Unimate’, the first industrial robot.
Modern robots: physical versus software
Physical robots are the most common robots, these are often devices used in manufacturing industries to support people in their work. They are often referred to as industrial robots. During the industrial revolution, we have seen a rise in physical robots being integrated in factories. One of the first modern robots was used by Henry Ford in his car factory. Nowadays, these robots have developed to such a degree that they can in many cases function in a completely independent fashion; without any human intervention. Thus, we also find physical robots in elderly care which are called service robots.
When processing tangible products by robots has been proven successfully, why not automating operational processes in administrative sense? Looking at the four criteria of a robot we described above, incorporating the robotic programming code into a computer instead of a human-like device, makes it perfectly possible to implement robots in the office environment. These virtual robots are the latest stage in the evolution. These robots are not physical, they are intangible, called software robots. Software robots are basically sets of coded commands that tell a computer which tasks to perform and how to do that. The most common software robots are also known as Robotic Process Automation (RPA).
Setting the course
The journey of robotics elapses from ancient drawn concepts to the latest trend: software robots. Big ideas came true. Now robots are there to stay and we are able to equip them with increasing intelligence. Together with emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, in the future we might just build robotic software that is even able to recognize emotion and respond in the same intuitive way a human would.
Imagine the many societal issues robots could then address…