Impacts of Robotics in the Society
A robot is a term used for a device or a machine in which it functions through a control instrument like a remote control or it can work automatically. Another definition of a robot has been given in which it states “A robot is a machine that gathers information about its environment and uses that information to follow instructions to do work”. This definition of a robot emphasises on its main features which are sensors and actuators. With the advancements in healthcare and technology, the global population is growing rapidly alongside a global increase in the average global life expectancy of a human being. As such, the prospect of robots carrying out tasks deemed taxing or even impossible for human workers has become more enticing for researchers and engineers. This report assess the impact that robots are having and may have on current and future societies. The history of robots has been explored and their current applications in various sectors such as industrial, medical and military has also been reviewed. The future applications based on current research has been discussed and hence the socio-economic impact that robots may have has also been addressed. Through this report, it has been found that robots have a net positive impact by allowing for automation and increased precision that is required in various fields as well as providing a safe method to deal with hazardous situations.
In popular culture, particularly in science fiction, a future world is envisioned in which robots are ubiquitous. They are imagined to work in factories, simplify complex surgeries, fight in human wars and have even been depicted undertaking mundane tasks such as cleaning. Slowly but surely, robots are becoming omnipresent in various industries ranging from manufacturing to medicine, they have found their way into homes and workplaces via their various applications. The increasing presence of robots in human lives rears many social, political, philosophical and economic questions. This essay will assess to what extent this portrayal is indicative of the impact robots will have on society, or whether these depictions are purely science fiction.
Robotic technology has been developed and refined with one ultimate purpose: to facilitate the lives of human beings and to enhance society. Dating as far back as the industrial revolution, robots have been relied upon to complete numerous tasks, unknowingly to the average person . Various media outlets present so called ‘humanoids’ (human like robots) that develop superior intelligence hence rendering humans inferior and creating a shift in the social paradigm set by humans. The clichéd presentation of the inexorable rise of robots, that threaten economic, social and moral security has caused misconceptions, suspicions and even fear amongst humans. However, humans have subconsciously accepted ‘robots’ for decades, as a robot can be defined as any “automatic motorised tool”  and so a microwave heating food, self-service tills or a military drone are all machines that have been entrusted, and accepted, to carry out tasks for humans. Yet, this fear of artificial intelligence surpassing human intelligence can be dated back to the 1950s hen Isaac Asimov wrote three laws so as to allow the peaceful coexistence between robots and humans, these are:
- A robot must not harm a human being or, by inaction, allow a human being to suffer any damage.
- A robot must obey the orders given by human beings, except where such orders are at odds with the first law.
- A robot must protect its own existence, as such protection is not fought with the first or second law
Asimov’s principles for the interaction between humans and robots were considered to be science fiction, although today his once innovative visualization is on par with the industrial development of robotics, and may provide comfort to robotic skeptics, particularly those concerned with human safety. However, even this will provide little comfort to those disturbed by the possible economic implications of these intelligent machines. They now complete tasks reliably and efficiently in ways that would have sound unbelievable less than a decade ago. Various multi-national companies have pledged machine advances in the near future: Rolls-Royce claim that robotic ships will be in our seas, Amazon proclaim that orders will be delivered by electric drones and Nissan suggest a driverless car will be achieved by 2020 . Yet, as the power of the machines increases, their cost collapses, along with jobs and salaries. The extensive use of robots will affect the labour models and business organization, as companies will have to adapt to take advantage of the full potential of robotic systems. Higher unemployment, lower demand for skilled labour, revolts and union claims would be inevitable challenges of the new working standard that includes increased use of robots. To quantify the consequences of increased automation, consider the evolution of the phenomenon foreseen by the experts: an estimated automation of 80% of all activities and in all sectors, both economic and social at a global level is predicted by the year 2042 .
Application of Robots
Robotics is a relatively new branch of engineering, and very multi-disciplinary disciplinary approach has been taken, and is being taken towards the advancement of robotics and robotic applications. There are elements of mechanical, electrical and computer engineering involved in the development of robots. Each plays an important role, mechanical engineering will deal with the machinery of the robot, electrical with the control and intelligence and computer with the movement and observation of robots . Robots can be classified into simple level, middle and complex level. These are classified according to their complexity, a simple level robot is an automated machine which does not require complex circuits and exists purely to increase a human’s ability. Middle level robots are programmable, but not reprogrammable, they contain a sensor based circuit. A complex level robot can be reprogrammed and contain a complex circuit, one of the most notable complex level robots is the laptop . Robots can then be further classified according to their application, this section aims to present a brief overview of the robotic applications that exist.
Some of the application of robots include:
- Industrial Robots these are used in manufacturing environments. These types of robots are generally articulating arms used for welding, material handling, dispensing, processing, assembly and other manufacturing tasks.
- Domestic Robots these have been aforementioned through the unknowingly accepted robot: the vacuum cleaner. In this application, it is generally thought any robot that carries out a domestic task can be categorised as domestic, and so even surveillance robots can fall into this category along robot sweepers etc.
- Medical Robots these are arguably one of the most appreciated robots, as humans feel that they can be trusted and can appreciate that the service they provide is second to none. Any robot used in medicine or medical instrumentation can be defined as a medical robot. The most popular being surgical robots, however medical robots are using even as lifting aides.
- Military Robots juxtaposing the medical robots, these are arguably the most mistrusted and robotic sceptics often cite the use of robots in military as the biggest threat to society. However, military robots are not limited to drones, they are also capable of safely disposing of bombs, undertaking difficult search and rescue missions as well as potentially being used for law enforcement.
- Exploration Robots these are often viewed as futuristic and fictional, however they are used in the international space station and have allowed for projects such as the Mars exploration using rovers to be carried out.
- Other Applications the list above is not at all exhaustive and robots have many other applications from services, including data gathering/analysis or research, to entertainment for example the use of robotic arms as simulators to Hobby robots which are made just for fun or even in competitive spirit.
Advancements in medicine and improving the quality and length of human lived is often welcomed warmly by society. Medicine is constantly evolving, with progress being made at a rate faster than most people can comprehend, robots may further medicine even more. Through the use of medical bionics, bio-mechatronics and possible bio-integration it is undoubted that robots have an important role to play in future medicine. In the US it has emerged that over 4000 surgical errors occur a year due to human error . So the introduction of an automated robotic manipulator conducting the surgery in the most precise manner suddenly seems like an alternative to the risk of human error. At the time of writing, there does not yet exist a robot which can independently do a surgery, surgical robots are just manipulators which still require a skilled surgeon to control them. The two stems of surgical robots are tele-surgical robots which essentially allows the surgeon to control the robot from a distance and laparoscopic which allows for minimally invasive surgery. The most famous surgical robot is the Da Vinci robot system pictures in figure 1, it is currently being mass produced and sold . Other areas where robotic research may have significant impact is in bionic prosthesis, although these are not strictly robots, they build on the foundation principles or robots.
The oldest automation machines can be found in industrial applications. A robot has been defined by ISO as “an automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose manipulator programmable in three or more axes” . The industrial robot is generally composed of an end effector which is the tool that will be used for the set task i.e. picking an object up. The arm is then responsible for moving this end effector using the control cabinet.
In application these industrial robots replace certain human jobs, usually jobs that are undesirable, most commonly known is the robot that picks items up from one place and drops it in another i.e. on a manufacturing line (conveyor belt). The uses of industrial robots were briefly presented but they go beyond those aforementioned to die casting, moulding, packaging and transportation. Moreover these robots can used to conduct operations that are hazardous, a common one being the use of hazardous chemicals in factory environments. Finally they are also useful for heavy lifting and other jobs that’s it is no possible for a human to do physically .