Robotics is a very broad and complex field. In fiction most robots look roughly like humans, but in real life it’s much more complicated – there are robots that look like people, robots that look like tuna cans on wheels, robots that look like worms or fish or even robots too small to see with the naked eye. By definition, a robot is just a machine controlled by a computer – which means that in the modern world, most of the machines around us are robots!
When you think of a robot that looks like a human, you’re actually thinking of what’s called a humanoid robot. Most humanoid robots in fiction, the kind that have their own wants and goals, are what we would call autonomous, which just means they do their own thing, they don’t really need instructions or an operator. A Roomba is an example of an autonomous robot we have right now: you just put it on the floor and let it go. It’s goal is to clean your floor, following a simple set of instructions. Sure, it’s a simple goal compared to C-3PO’s personality, but it’s a start!
In the future, semi-autonomous robots are probably going to be a big part of our lives. Some androids in fiction, like robot servants that don’t want anything for themselves, are really semi-autonomous rather than entirely autonomous because you have to tell them what you want. A self-driving car would be a type of semi-autonomous robot that we’re likely to see in the near future. You tell the car where you want to go, so it’s not completely autonomous, and the computer controlling the car makes it happen, without needing you to give it any more instructions.
So now you may be wondering what kinds of things robots are being made or used for right now. The simple answer is “just about everything”. On the more serious side, robots drones like the Predator are fighting for the military, robots like the groundbreaking Atlas by Boston Dynamics are meant for search-and-rescue missions too dangerous for humans, and robot surgeons like the NeuroArm are guided by human surgeons to perform life-saving operations. On the more fun side, robots are being developed that can fold laundry, play ping-pong (TOSY’s TOPIO), or act as a companion. In Japan, robots like Aldebaran’s Pepper are waiting on customers in shops.
However, robots today are very specialized. A robot can do a few tasks very well, but if you want a different task done, you’ll need a different robot. We’re a long ways from the kind of general-purpose robot that could serve as a butler or personal assistant. That’s because of limitations to artificial intelligence that we’ll be covering in our next post about AI and Neural Nets. Nevertheless, a lot of amazing robots are out there! Check out robots like the one-legged Salto, the winged DelFly Nimble, this incrdible growing robot, or this robotic gripper. We live in a world full of robots, and you’ll probably see more of them in the coming years.