The World of Robots
In May 2022, Vijaywada Municipal Corporation incorporated ‘Bandicoot’ a machine engineered to clean sewer pits and manholes. Earlier, this job was done by humans who stepped inside the drains for cleaning and unclogging. Data mined by the Government of India’s Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry shows that about 43,797 people are engaged in manual scavenging, with over 42,500 belonging to the Scheduled Castes. Now, at least some of the people from these vast numbers can move away from the job that is degrading to human dignity.
Recently, a Humanoid (a robot that resembles humans) named ‘Ai-Da’ grabbed the headlines, for answering the members’ questions in UK Parliament. ‘Gilbert’ a robotic fish can suck in microplastics from waterways to reduce plastic pollution. Robots have also been employed to pick strawberries in California to tackle the labour shortage. The common thread between these geographically distant situations is the employment of Robots to perform tasks that had hitherto been restricted to humans.
What is a Robot?
A robot can simply be defined as a programmable machine that performs a series of complex tasks automatically. The word robot has its roots in Slavic terminology that loosely translates to ‘labour’. Interestingly, the word was first used to denote a fictional humanoid in a Czech-language play titled ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’, in 1920. What started as a mere idea in a Sci-Fi Play is a reality today that promises to better the lives of humans.
What is Robotic Technology?
Each robot is a machine but every machine cannot be a robot. This is because a robot is designed to act autonomously, according to a pre-fed program. What this essentially implies is that there is no need for a human operator to command or supervise a robot, as opposed to other machines. Automatic and Independent Operations are at the heart of Robotics.
The field of Robotics is an amalgamation of different streams of engineering like electronics, mechanical, telecommunications, computer science, etc. due to the high level of complexity involved in the designing and manufacturing of a robot. Not only these, but the fields of psychology and behavioural sciences too contribute to the creation of a robot. This is done to elevate the user – experience while interacting with the machine.
Robots mainly have 3 components –
1. Programmable Computer – This acts as the brain of the Robot. It is the command centre that contains pre-programmed instructions which enable the robot to carry out a task. Now, with the incorporation of newer technologies like Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, robotic machines are capable of taking feedback from their environment and tweaking the predefined set of instructions to effectively perform the job at hand. This processor also contains sophisticated software and algorithms including Natural Language Processing (NLP), Image Recognition, Speech Processing, etc.
2. Limbs of the Robot – These are the devices that act. They can be said to be similar to the hands of a human being. In a humanoid, these actuators can be hands and legs while an assembly-line robot can have electronic arms to perform the tasks. Sensors such as Gyroscope, Motion Detector, Proximity Sensor, Accelerometer, etc. are used by the robot to scan the vicinity, to make use of its limbs.
3. Remote-Control – This component is not a feature of all the robots. Remote regulation by using either a wired or a wireless controller is necessitated by particular applications and situations in which the robot is deployed. In this mode, a human operator is required to control the robot; hence it is not a fully autonomous operation.
Types of Robots
As the applications of Robotics span different fields, myriad types of robots have evolved. Though, there is not one comprehensive list that details the types of robots, Intel Inc. who is the world leader in the manufacturing of electronic processors, has classified robots into the following categories –
1. Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR) – These are mobile machines that require little to no human input for completing the prescribed task. They are equipped with cameras and sensors for collision detection while the onboard processor decides the mobility path in real time. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) like drones, also fall into this category. AMRs are employed to pick up and deliver parcels, disinfect surfaces, vacuum floors, conduct reconnaissance, etc.
2. Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) – This type of robot too is mobile, but differs from the AMRs in that they can only travel on predefined paths. While the AMRs make use of Ambient Intelligence to sense their surroundings, AGVs require human supervision. AGVs are not capable of moving freely around the premises, but follow a road that has already been mapped out in their electronic memory. Hence, their applications are limited to factory floors, warehouses, or any other controlled environment.
3. Articulated Robots – In common language, these are known as Robotic Arms. They have been designed to emulate the functions of a human arm. They vary in the degree to which they can move or rotate. This degree of motion is determined according to the application. Hence, robotic arms are used in welding, machinery handling, packaging as well as in performing medical surgery procedures. Operation by a human is not mandatory but is recommended in critical applications such as surgery.
4. Humanoids – As mentioned before, humanoids are robots that resemble humans in form and mobility. This is the reason they have become a part of the popular imagination and are depicted in movies. They are employed to effectuate human-centric functions such as being a concierge, providing directions, etc. Like the AMRs, humanoids have electronic senses to understand their surroundings and make real-time decisions. They also make use of Machine Intelligence and Feedback Loops to mimic human actions. In the future, humanoid robots are being trained to be caregivers and companions to humans. An excellent example of a humanoid is the Sophia Robot which can interact and sustain conversations with humans. The aforementioned Ai-Da Robot can draw and paint with the help of camera eyes, robotic arms, and intelligent algorithms.
5. Co-Bots – These robots are programmed to work alongside humans to improve safety, efficiency, and productivity. They can be employed to perform strenuous or hazardous chores, which would be too risky for a human being. In some cases, co-bots can operate by responding to and learning from fellow human workers.
6. Hybrid Bots – These bots are created by combining any of the above types of robots. The flexibility and mobility provided by hybrids are required in many real-world applications that involve highly-complex tasks. For example – Mars or Moon rovers are AMRs with the capability of robotic arms to carry out experiments on extra-terrestrial surfaces.
Will Robots replace Jobs?
Since time machines have risen to perform tasks that were earlier confined to humans, there has been media speculation and public hue and cry regarding the future of job markets. Many discussion forums conjecture that robots will take up human jobs, thus causing widespread unemployment and poverty. Though indeed, robots and other automation systems have gradually phased out 1.7 million manufacturing jobs since the year 2000, modern tech is also responsible for creating many more jobs. ‘The Future of Jobs Report, 2020’ by the World Economic Forum, forecasts the worldwide creation of 97 million new jobs by 2025, as opposed to the replacement of 85 million jobs.
The employment opportunities created by modern technologies like Robotics and Artificial Intelligence shall require a highly-skilled workforce. This is the reason governments and jobseekers alike need to focus on building modern-age skills like programming, designing, research, development, etc. These jobs demand higher cognitive abilities, hence would also pay much higher.
Though robots are more efficient and yield higher productivity, they cannot have Emotional Intelligence. This is why human-centric businesses like hospitality, the Medical and Entertainment Industries, etc. would still prefer humans in significant roles. The jobs that would be lost are predicted to fall in the category of low-skilled and less remuneration as well as those that are hazardous to humans like mining and manual scavenging.
The world of Robotics is fascinating because of its endless possibilities and ever-expanding horizons. The spectrum of robotic applications ranges from children’s toys to highly sophisticated space probes that are searching for life on other planets. Hence, the global market size for robotics technology was valued at $62.75 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach $189.36 billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 13.5% from 2020 to 2027. This huge amount of investment is bound to trickle down to the masses, thence contributing to poverty reduction and adding to overall prosperity and well-being. Thus, robots are not some devious creatures that will take your jobs and enslave you as in movies, but they are a product of advanced science and technology that can improve the quality of your life. So, the next time you see a humanoid walking around the corner, don’t forget to say hi and click a selfie!!
*The views/opinions expressed in the above article exclusively belong to the writer. Tatvita may have different opinions on the subject.*
Vishvali Deo is an E&TC (Electronics and Telecommunication) Engineer by education and Software Engineer by Profession. She believes that 'Technology is a Great Democratising and Equalising Force' and hence is on a mission to make the general public understand seemingly complex technologies in a simple manner.
She is convinced that the root of today's world problems lie in the past, hence she has also pursued post-graduation in History. She has a keen interest and a good grip over Economics, Political Science and Environmental Engineering. She has a penchant for working with Women and spreading Digital Literacy amongst them, with the aim of their empowerment. She also strives to provide Free Quality Education to children and counsels young adults. Besides, she is also skilled at Public Speaking, having won many awards in Elocution & Debate Competitions and Technical Paper Presentations.