You may not realize it, but you rely on robots every day. Robots almost certainly built your car and your washing machine. Order something online, and the chances are that your goods will be collected from the warehouse by a robot. The natural gas that powers your central heating is likely to have come from an undersea gas well serviced by robots. Take the driverless electric train between terminal buildings at any number of international airports, and you will be transported in a robot vehicle. And perhaps most surprisingly, the milk on your kitchen table may well have come from cows milked by a robot.
What these robots all have in common is that they are working behind the scenes, by and large out of sight. So, despite their importance, most people are unaware of their key role in the modern world and have never seen a real, working robot ‘in the metal’.
But this is changing. A new generation of robots is being designed to interact with humans, face to robot. Unlike their industrial counterparts, these robots will be human-friendly and much smarter; they will have to be in order to be safe. These robots will be capable of providing direct physical support to humans as robot workmates or companions.
A reasonable prediction is that by 2020 many households will have one or more robots, perhaps a driverless car, several cleaning robots, and an educational or entertainment robot. Not many years later and a gardening robot could be taking care of garden weeds and pests. Limited-function robot companions could well become a reality, if not commonplace, by 2025.
Today, if you ask someone to think of a robot, there's a good chance it will be a robot from a movie: perhaps R2D2 or C-3PO from Star Wars, Sonny from I, Robot, or Disney's WALL-E. The problem is that our expectations of what robots are, or should be, draw much more on fiction than on reality. It's been ninety years since Czech playwright Karel Čapek first used the word ‘robot’ to describe a humanoid automaton in his play RUR (Rossum's Universal Robots), and for many people the word robot remains synonymous with an intelligent mechanical person.
This book is not about the psychology or cultural anthropology of robotics, interesting as those are. I am an engineer and roboticist, so I confine myself firmly to the technology and application of real physical robots. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, robotics is the study of the design, application, and use of robots, and that is precisely what this Very Short Introduction is about: what robots do and what roboticists do.
This book begins by asking the question ‘What is a robot?’ In Chapter 1, I introduce a real robot and use it to describe the important parts of all robots: sensing (robot ‘eyes’ or ‘touch’), actuation (robot ‘hands’, ‘arms’, or ‘legs’), and intelligence (robot ‘brains’). This framework serves two purposes. First, it allows us to build a kind of family tree into which we can fit the existing robots I introduce in Chapter 2. Second, it helps us understand both the strengths and limitations of current robots, and why truly intelligent robots remain for the time being only a future possibility.
The last twenty-five years have seen a profound change in the direction of robotics research and development, triggered by the challenge of designing intelligent robots. That change can be described with the words ‘biological inspiration’. Illustrating with examples, including robots that get their energy from food and robots modelled on the rat, I introduce bio-inspired robotics in Chapter 3 and what it means for robotics as a whole.
Although the vast majority of robots in the world today are not humanoid, robots made in our likeness hold a special fascination. They are closest to our image of robots as mechanical people. In Chapter 4, I describe work toward humanoid robots as workplace assistants or companions, illustrating this with examples of humanoid robots that range from cartoon-like to realistic. I also outline the problems of robot safety, trustworthiness, and ethics.
In Chapter 5, I describe a number of trends in current robotics research. These include not only new kinds of robots but also radical new ways of designing robots. I introduce swarm robotic systems—multi-robot systems inspired by social insects. Then I outline evolutionary robotics, a new design approach in which robots are artificially evolved using a process akin to Darwinian evolution.
‘Where is robotics going?’ is a question that receives huge public attention. The final chapter addresses the question of robotic futures by analysing the technical problems that would need to be solved in order to build three ‘thought experiment’ robot systems: an autonomous planetary scientist, a swarm of medical micro-robots, and a humanoid robot companion.
Like any transformative technology, robotics holds both promise and peril. One of the aims of this book is to equip you the reader with sufficient understanding to reach an informed judgement about not only what robots could realistically be like, but what robots should, perhaps, not be like.
Robotics is a large field and I’m acutely aware of significant areas of robotics that are omitted from this short introduction. To fellow roboticists whose areas of work I’ve passed over briefly, or missed altogether, I offer my apologies. This book is unashamedly a personal view; partly because it's best to write what you know, but more because important questions in robotics are still controversial. Basic questions such as ‘What defines a robot?’ and ‘When can a robot be labelled intelligent?’ remain open. Thus, although I hope this book provides a fair representation of the field, the values and judgements I have offered in relation to the various developments in robotics are very firmly my own.