When we talk about the future of robotics, we need to be aware that the future is now. We are living in an era of endless innovation, where many things that you would mention as the “distant future” are already being invented and tested somewhere in the world. To a person not working in robotics, some of the things that exist may seem very far stretched, like something we thought was just a theoretical idea, and not an existing project.
The vast world of robotics encompasses a wide range of different products and projects – from more simple small robots made to help with basic tasks and make your life easier, to robotic prosthetics for humans, robots shaped like animals made for different tasks, or even humanoid robots striving to reproduce complex behaviors like speech and emotions. We are going to explore a few of these categories to see what the current state of things is and what the future might hold for us.
There is nothing simple in a functioning robotic hand or a robot that folds laundry and passes items, but we will start with these “less sophisticated” robots. We are at a stage when prosthetics can be extremely advanced, and even things like a robotic eye have been invented and are getting exponentially better. It is one thing to have a robotic eye made for a robot, which functions more like a camera and allows for image or facial recognition, movement and manipulation of space and the world around the robot, but it is another thing completely to create a robotic eye which can be used by humans who have lost their sight or have different problems. Connecting the eye to the human brain with electrodes and finding a way for us to perceive images from a robotic eye in a way similar to the infinitely complex human eye is a challenge that should not be underestimated. These robotic eye prosthetics already exist, currently with more basic functions like allowing the person to recognize basic shapes and navigate space with difficulty, but in the future these inventions are only expected to get better. Perhaps one day it could be possible for blind people to have robotic eyes with complex functions good enough to abandon their need for guide dogs or walking sticks.
In this category one could also include AI-enhanced software similar to Alexa or Siri which is often implemented into small robots whose goal can be assistance in the lives of elderly people by using their intuitive functions to help with communication, allow video calls with family, order groceries, remind a person to take medicine, or even call for help if something goes wrong. With growing elderly populations in some countries, these types of robots can help with real tasks but also be beneficial to a person’s mental health and help them feel more secure. The small size or simplicity of the robot doesn’t diminish the complexity of the AI built inside of it, so these small machines can be extremely “smart” and capable of many different things.
When we consider the robotic build, a more complex category could be defined as robots modeled after animals and made for various functions. These types of robots have been made by many companies in many countries, and they can range from the size of a tiny bug to that of dogs or cats, or even something twice the size of humans, made to carry heavy equipment and travel large distances. While the production of such robots has a fun aspect to it, making a robot dog seems like a cool challenge, they are more often made for specific purposes and meant to be developed into something quite useful.
Big “mule” type robots were made to help carry equipment across various terrains, and were even tested by the military, but they could also have a huge use in agriculture or many other different sectors as well. Small bug robots can be used to explore unsafe areas, gather land or water samples, access places which are hard to reach or which have an environment not suited well for humans. Such advancements in robotics are modeled on the natural shapes and characteristics of animals which make them well adapted to their environments. These adaptations are something which we can use to improve our robots and make them indispensable in things such as search and rescue missions, allowing them to reach and survive in places we can’t, and helping us not risk any other human lives in the process of saving others.
The most advanced robotics task can perhaps be considered that of creating humanoid robots, and not in the sense of just a robot engineered to walk on two legs and look like a human, but because of all the human aspects engineers are trying to replicate in some of these robots. Aiming to produce a robot with the ability to think or simulate the brain function, gestures and behavior of humans is something very complex and absolutely fascinating.
Some humanoid robots are just meant to replace us in factory work or different physical tasks, but what about those who are meant to think, simulate human gestures and conversations, or potentially even try to develop a sort of consciousness? We don’t really understand the human consciousness in ourselves – why we do things that we do or act and react in certain ways, how our emotions function and what drives us to create art. Having robots do these functions is incredibly complex and currently not completely possible. We can make a robot mimic facial expressions or talk about many things, simulating real interpersonal relationships, but they are not aware of what they are doing and there are no real emotions behind those expressions. Despite this we still have robots who create art and music or express themselves as if they have their own opinions, have conversations with humans, participate in talk shows or games, and so many other “human” things.
And this is not just a trait of humanoid robots, there are many AI machines and programs which create art and music through machine learning and complex programming. As mentioned before, the power of the AI does not depend on the size of the machine or robot it is presented in. What is interesting then is the human need to then implement such complex “human” programs into a humanoid robot, trying to actually replicate a real person in both form and the simulation of our abilities.
There are so many useful inventions which can help our lives, not only in a sense of making tasks easier, but also helping us feel better, less alone, allowing sick or elderly people to feel more safe, helping disabled people move or see or hear. We have done so much and there is still so much to do. We have to keep these wonders in mind when developing the technologies of the future, and to think about those in need and less fortunate. Robotics don’t only provide fun and entertainment, they can make the world a truly better place.
It’s great to enhance our physical lives and add robotics to our realities, but when thinking about AI in general, its use in different forms can really help us create a better world – as long as we use it responsibly and for the benefit of all. AI has brought us improvements in infrastructure, safety, the smarter building of communities, advancements in medicine, agriculture and literally every other sector, digital innovations and connectedness which we couldn’t even imagine before, better products, better banking, better education – and the ability to imagine a better future. So much has already happened – and there is so much more to come.