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Robots take over

You can't live without them but they can manage very well without you. The balance of servitude and authority shifts, inexorably, towards the machines...For nearly 100 years, the word ‘robot’ has carried a connotation of something exotic.

brunch Updated: Jul 21, 2013 13:08 IST
Saudamini Jain

April 2004
Somewhere on Mars
Robotic rovers Spirit and Opportunity have completed their mission on Mars. But their stay has been extended, they are to continue studying the surface of the planet.
Update: No connection has been established with Spirit since 2010. The next Mars rover, Curiosity, successfully landed in August 2012.
Curiosity and Opportunity are criss-crossing the surface, assessing Martian climate and geology, logging far more hours in space than all astronauts combined.

NASA is expected to send its next Mars rover in 2020 to search for signs of life that may have once existed.

August 2011
Longhua, China
Foxconn, the world's largest contract manufacturer and leading maker of Apple products, declares its plans to use "one million robots" in its factories in China to reduce its dependence on human labour.
The Taiwanese company is China's largest employer-1.4 million people. It had previously been under much scrutiny for strikes and suicides within its workforce.

July 2013
New Delhi, India
The newly-appointed director general of the Defense Research and Development Organisation made a statement.
Unmanned warfare in land and air is the future of warfare. Robotic soldiers will be up and running in a decade. At first, they will assist humans. In time, humans will assist them.

For nearly 100 years, the word ‘robot’ has carried a connotation of something exotic – a future yet unseen, gleaming humanoids and behemoths either being our beasts of burden or our overlords. It began in 1920 with a Czech play, Karel Capek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots. It was the first time the word was ever used in the English language. Now the combined imagination of generations of sci-fi writers is at our doorstep – robots are here.

Literally translated from Czech, a robot means slave. It’s a machine capable of being programmed to perform complex actions.
If your smartphone had wheels, it would be a robot. It could talk, it could be used for surveillance and it could roll in circles around your bed, ringing an alarm till you wake up.

Acyut: India’s first humanoid was built by students from BITS Pilani in 2008. So far, the team has created six robots in the AcYut series – this one is Acyut 1. It could walk, fight and dance to Bollywood songs. AcYut 6 came fourth at RoboCup 2013.

Half a century ago, when Isaac Asimov was churning novel after novel about robots and humanoids, enthralling generations of geeks across the world, “robotics was a very specialised field,” says Santanu Chaudhary, professor of robotics at IIT Delhi. “Now, robotics is here in a big way and a variety of forms.”

There is an abundance of research going on across the world into making robots faster, smarter, stronger and more adaptable. In other words, we are the generation that gets to see robots growing up. We’re standing at the edge of tomorrow. These robots will change our lives. We show you how.

If you’re the guy who screws on caps on tubes of toothpaste, you’re already a goner.

Robots can do all our mundane work, all our dirty work – people no longer have to be subjected to hazardous environments or physically-demanding tasks. Robots work seven days a week, don’t go on strike and they never get pregnant.

But there have always been a few glitches. Powerful industrial robots could cause serious accidents as they couldn’t tell humans apart. They needed a programmer to feed in codes. And they were expensive. One robot could cost half a million dollars.

But last September along came Baxter. A very smart industrial robot designed by Rodney Brooks, the world’s most celebrated roboticist. It can see and perceive humans, and is thus able to work along with them. And any idiot can train it. Holding its hands, you guide it to complete a task and Baxter learns what and how it is supposed to work. And at $22,000, it may even give competition to Indian labour, when it releases internationally as early as next year.

Before the end of this century, claims Wired magazine, “70 per cent of today’s occupations will be replaced by automation... from manual labour to knowledge work.” Not real knowledge work, surely”? Your white-collared job is safe, right? Mine isn’t.

A robot can write a news story.

Neither is yours. Robots are entering all professions. They are entertainers, cops, teachers. At the Robot Restaurant in Harbin, China, bots cook noodles and dumplings and wait tables. Hell, robots even play football! The official objective of annual RoboCup is to have humanoids go against the winning human team of the most recent World Cup by 2050.

And for everything a robot can’t do yet, there’s a human working somewhere to make sure that it can eventually. We found out that even fashion designer Raghavendra Rathore once made a small robot for a robotics course at Hampshire college, Amherst, Massachusetts. He sees a lot of potential for robots in the fashion industry. “I’d love robotic feedback. I wouldn’t have to wait for models, we could have robot mannequins which can tell if the clothes don’t fit well,” he says with a laugh. Except, he’s dead serious.

Now that somebody famous has said it, you’re not sure whether you want to be a luddite or laugh. Well, they’re coming home too...

People already are. Even in India. The Milagrow floor cleaner is a very simple robot. It’s a flat disc, which moves in circles, brushing the dirt off your floor till the area is absolutely clean. You don’t even need to charge it. As soon as its battery drops to 15 per cent, it finds its way to the charger and charges itself. “Bye! Bye! Shanta bai!” says a user review on Flipkart.

Baxter Robot: Baxter by Rethink Robotics is an industrial robot, which can see and perceive humans. It can adapt to its environment – so the conveyor belt going too fast isn’t a problem anymore

India is a great market for domestic robots. By 2015, says Rajeev Karwal, CEO of Milagrow, “we plan to bring in service robots which can wake you up in the morning, keep your home safe, among other things.”

But the robot you would want to own some day is a telepresence robot. This is basically your alter ego. A standard model looks like a stand with an attached screen, used for video-conferencing. It can move around by itself, attend meetings for you or visit remote locations. You can sit at home and manage an entire office on another continent. Every time you want to speak to a colleague or look at a presentation, just ask the robot to roll over to that area. You’ll be connected on video-conference. When it’s gliding through the hallway, you can even greet your colleagues on the way.

You could have a robot all through retirement too. By 2050, the world’s 65-plus-year-old population is projected to triple. All it means is more lonely years spent struggling to take care of your aching bones and popping countless pills.

Luckily for you, Cody, a robotic nurse, is “gentle enough to bathe elderly patients.” Another robot, Hector, can remind you to take your medicine and review your agenda for the day. In case of emergencies, it can get help. The Japanese have made exoskeletons, battery-powered suits that amplify the wearer’s muscle action so he can lift heavy objects.

Robots like these are also being used to aid the disabled. And none of this need be a heartless relationship between man and machine. Robots can be fun as well.

Data, a stand-up comedy bot, can tell how the crowd perceives his routine and adjust accordingly. “I would like to say it is a pleasure to be here. But I’m a robot and know no emotion,” he says.

Everybody cracks up. And because we know what you’re thinking, we’ll get to the most pertinent question before anything else. The Brunch team was unanimously repulsed by the idea. They’re a bunch of prudes. We’re sure there are many others who wouldn’t mind.

By 2050, according to a study from University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, nations may have to figure out legality for humans to marry robots. “It may sound a little weird,” researcher David Levy was reported saying, but, “Love and sex with robots is inevitable.”

Although she hasn’t reached the supermarket yet, for $7,000, Roxxxy is more than just a sex doll. She’s made of silicon, can talk to you endlessly, respond to your touch and even shudders to stimulate orgasm. The makers are working on a male version, Rocky, too.

Asimov’s first law of robotics:

A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Yeah, well that’s not real. But, robots can and are saving our lives.

With the Da Vinci robotic surgery, now available in many Indian hospitals as well, surgeons can manoeuvre the robot with a console. They can see the insides of the body better than ever before through the robot’s eyes – an excellent HD camera. It doesn’t work on its own, it has very little Artificial Intelligence (AI), and needs a human coordinator. But it can successfully facilitate gynaecological surgeries and even heart surgeries.

Dr Mangesh Patil, head robo-urologists at Mumbai’s Asian Heart Institute says a prostatectomy (normally four hours, plus a week of hospitalisation and one-two units of blood) is now a 75-minute keyhole procedure and you’re out in two days.

T-800 (Terminator): Either way, the journey begins with an ice-cold killing machine, and ends with a child-saving hero with a heart of gold. Never has wooden acting in leather jackets looked quite so badass.

And there are robots, which save your life in non-medical emergencies. Unmanned robots can navigate inhospitable terrain, and defuse explosives. Anuj Kapuria, the director of Hi-Tech Robotic Systemz, a company that makes robots for Defence, says, “We’ve seen it with computers, cellphones and all other technologies, defence is always the first user.”

Last week, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), America’s equivalent of the DRDO, unveiled a six-feet-two-inch, 300-pound humanoid which saves lives in hazard zones.

While governments have so far kept humans as the operators of robotised weaponry, a UN report cites that Israel, South Korea, the UK, and the United States have developed weapons systems with various degrees of autonomy.

And that answers the next question. Yes. You’re already worried. Robots can terminate the entire human race, Hollywood tells us. Asimov called this the “Frankenstein

complex” – Man’s obsession with the fear of robots; that man will lose control over his technological creations.

The thing with robots is, you can always switch them off. Robotic engineer Samay Kohli, CEO and co-founder of Grey Orange Robotics, (he was also part of the team that made India’s first humanoid AcYut), makes a fair point. Robots are just as safe/unsafe as your computer. “What if one day your bank balance is zero? Viruses and trojans pose a threat. Robots will be in the same space.”

But will we be able to trust them? “You will,” he insists. “Look, do you trust an aeroplane or not?”

Precisely Asimov’s point. He said fear was rooted not in being physically harmed but in becoming obsolete. Economists Frank Levy of MIT and Richard J Murnane of Harvard conducted a study of jobs that have been lost and those which are likely to be lost as technology keeps advancing. They argue that the problem isn’t mass unemployment but the need to educate many more young people for the jobs computers cannot do. We’re not entirely sure what those jobs will be – in all probability, your primary role is going to be of managing the robot doing your job.

Machines have been making our lives easier since the beginning of time. It’s the job of the machine to do what you once did. The wheel, the plough, the loom, the steam engine, the computer, the smartphone... It’s now time for the robot to shine.

Ashutosh Saxena, a top robotic researcher at Cornell University (his team recently made a robot that can sense human anticipation and even pour you some beer when you need it to), says this is all happening right now. “Certain states in US (such as Nevada and California) have changed driving laws to make robotic cars (self-driving) legal. I see significant changes in under five years,” he says.

Kapuria, who studied at Carnegie Mellon University, estimates that robots will enter the market, “in about 15-20 years.” And this isn’t a first-world scenario. The Robotics Society of India (and no, we did not make this up) just had its first international robotics conference in Pune earlier this month.

“We’ve never needed robots before because our labour is cheap,” says Professor Chaudhary, also the vice-president (academic) of the Robotics Society. “But other kinds of requirements are coming up – security, terrorism, healthcare. There’s impetus.”

And it is this impetus that is driving scientists and engineers in research laboratories across the world to make all kinds of robots.

From HT Brunch, July 21

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