Wired Hands - A Brief Look At Robotics


Two years ago, the Chrysler corporation completely gutted
its Windsor, Ontario, car assembly plant and within six
weeks had installed an entirely new factory inside the
building. It was a marvel of engineering. When it came time
to go to work, a whole new work force marched onto the
assembly line. There on opening day was a crew of 150
industrial robots. Industrial robots don't look anything
like the androids from sci-fi books and movies. They don't
act like the evil Daleks or a fusspot C-3P0. If anything,
the industrial robots toiling on the Chrysler line resemble
elegant swans or baby brontosauruses with their fat, squat
bodies, long arched necks and small heads. An industrial
robot is essentially a long manipulator arm that holds
tools such as welding guns or motorized screwdrivers or
grippers for picking up objects. The robots working at
Chrysler and in numerous other modern factories are
extremely adept at performing highly specialized tasks -
one robot may spray paint car parts while another does
spots welds while another pours radioactive chemicals.
Robots are ideal workers: they never get bored and they
work around the clock. What's even more important, they're
flexible. By altering its programming you can instruct a
robot to take on different tasks. This is largely what sets
robots apart from other machines; try as you might you
can't make your washing machine do the dishes. Although
some critics complain that robots are stealing much-needed
jobs away from people, so far they've been given only the
dreariest, dirtiest, most soul-destroying work. The word
robot is Slav in origin and is related to the words for
work and worker. Robots first appeared in a play, Rossum's
Universal Robots, written in 1920 by the Czech playwright,
Karel Capek. The play tells of an engineer who designs
man-like machines that have no human weakness and become
immensely popular. However, when the robots are used for
war they rebel against their human masters. Though
industrial robots do dull, dehumanizing work, they are
nevertheless a delight to watch as they crane their long
necks, swivel their heads and poke about the area where
they work. They satisfy "that vague longing to see the
human body reflected in a machine, to see a living function
translated into mechanical parts", as one writer has said.
Just as much fun are the numerous "personal" robots now on
the market, the most popular of which is HERO, manufactured
by Heathkit. Looking like a plastic step-stool on wheels,
HERO can lift objects with its one clawed arm and utter
computer-synthesized speech. There's Hubot, too, which
comes with a television screen face, flashing lights and a
computer keyboard that pulls out from its stomach. Hubot
moves at a pace of 30 cm per second and can function as a
burglar alarm and a wake up service. Several years ago, the
swank department store Neiman-Marcus sold a robot pet,
named Wires. When you boil all the feathers out of the
hype, HERO, Hubot, Wires et. al. are really just super
toys. You may dream of living like a slothful sultan
surrounded by a coterie of metal maids, but any further
automation in your home will instead include things like
lights that switch on automatically when the natural light
dims or carpets with permanent suction systems built into
them. One of the earliest attempts at a robot design was a
machine, nicknamed Shakey by its inventor because it was so
wobbly on its feet. Today, poor Shakey is a rusting pile of
metal sitting in the corner of a California laboratory.
Robot engineers have since realized that the greater
challenge is not in putting together the nuts and bolts,
but rather in devising the lists of instructions - the
"software - that tell robots what to do".
Software has indeed become increasingly sophisticated year
by year. The Canadian weather service now employs a program
called METEO which translates weather reports from English
to French. There are computer programs that diagnose
medical ailments and locate valuable ore deposits. Still
other computer programs play and win at chess, checkers and
As a results, robots are undoubtedly getting "smarter". The
Diffracto company in Windsor is one of the world's leading
designers and makers of machine vision. A robot outfitted
with Diffracto "eyes" can find a part, distinguish it from
another part and even examine it for flaws. Diffracto is
now working on a tomato sorter which examines colour,
looking for no-red - i.e. unripe - tomatoes as they roll
past its TV camera eye. When an unripe tomato is spotted, a
computer directs a robot arm to pick out the pale fruit.
Another Diffracto system helps the space shuttle's Canadarm
pick up satellites from space. This sensor looks for
reflections on a satellites gleaming surface and can
determine the position and speed of the satellite as it
whirls through the sky. It tells the astronaut when the
satellite is in the right position to be snatched up by the
space arm.
The biggest challenge in robotics today is making software
that can help robots find their way around a complex and
chaotic world. Seemingly sophisticated tasks such as robots
do in the factories can often be relatively easy to
program, while the ordinary, everyday things people do -
walking, reading a letter, planning a trip to the grocery
store - turn out to be incredibly difficult. The day has
still to come when a computer program can do anything more
than a highly specialized and very orderly task. The
trouble with having a robot in the house for example, is
that life there is so unpredictable, as it is everywhere
else outside the assembly line. In a house, chairs get
moved around, there is invariably some clutter on the
floor, kids and pets are always running around. Robots work
efficiently on the assembly line where there is no
variation, but they are not good at improvisation. Robots
are disco, not jazz. The irony in having a robot
housekeeper is that you would have to keep your house
perfectly tidy with every item in the same place all the
time so that your metal maid could get around. Many of the
computer scientists who are attempting to make robots
brighter are said to working in the field of Artificial
Intelligence, or AI. These researchers face a huge dilemma
because there is no real consensus as to what intelligence
is. Many in AI hold the view that the human mind works
according to a set of formal rules. They believe that the
mind is a clockwork mechanism and that human judgement is
simply calculation. Once these formal rules of thought can
be discovered, they will simply be applied to machines. On
the other hand, there are those critics of AI who contend
that thought is intuition, insight, inspiration. Human
consciousness is a stream in which ideas bubble up from the
bottom or jump into the air like fish.
This debate over intelligence and mind is, of course, one
that has gone on for thousands of years. Perhaps the
outcome of the "robolution" will be to make us that much

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