Life with Robots: New Advances in Robotic Capabilities

Life with Robots: New Advances in Robotic Capabilities

The next generation of robots will look, feel and act more human. They will have applications in a wide variety of industries. A team of engineers at University of Washington (UW) recently solved one of robotics’ longstanding problems - dexterous manipulation. Their five-fingered robotic hand can not only grasp and manipulate objects, but can also learn from its own experience.

One of the more future focused talks at the Web Summit in November was the ‘Life with Robots’ seminar given by Andra Keay, the Managing Director of Silicon Valley Robotics. Andra made some interesting points not just about the robotics industry, but about how it’s changing human interactions. In the following blog, we will look back at the key points from the talk.

Our Non Humanoid Friends  

As Andra pointed out, we’re already living with robots, although our perception of what a robot is means we're generally unaware of most robotic devices. The term robot typically conjures images of humanoid machines, complete with legs, arms and a head. While this style of robot may become more prevalent in the future, current devices take on many forms and shapes, some complex and some simple. The International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) defines a robot as:

  • An actuated mechanism programmable in two or more axes with a degree of autonomy (2.2), moving within its environment, to perform intended tasks.

A basic example would be the common robotic arm used in assembly lines across the world. A more complex example would be the Tesla S model electric car, which Elon Musk described as “a computer in the shape of a car”. Andra noted that such a device can be classed as a robot; a mechanical device capable of sensing, thinking and acting.

As robotic technology progresses, and robots take on many forms and shapes, we reshape our world and what it means to be human. Andra termed this as a technology blended reality.

A Brave New World

The characteristics of a technology blended reality are:

  • Asynchronous - our devices require some form of computer control timing protocol in order to complete specific operations.
  • Mediated - electronic communications utilise a third party, which is typically robotic in nature.   
  • Indirect - our communications and interactions with one another are becoming increasingly indirect.

We use technology to communicate across vast distances, at different points in time and at a much expanded scale. We’ve been doing so since the birth of civilisation, and the advent of a new form of communication always results in global social and economical changes. The past 200 years have seen unprecedented advances in communication technologies, and we are currently living in an age of information. Humans are curious creatures and seek out and digest new information at an incredible rate. Technology permits us to do this, but it requires us to adapt to new channels and change the way in which we communicate

It’s important to note that our electronic communications are not always with human beings, and an increasing number of businesses are using bots and related software to assist with enquiries. As we progress as a species, it seems natural for us to utilise technology in assisting with not just our communications, but also our interactions.

Life on Mars

The Mars’ rovers are good examples of robots assisting human in otherwise impossible tasks, in this case the exploration and documentation of another planet. Closer to home there are numerous companies seeing the value of investing in robotics and utilising such technology to complete more mundane tasks.

The first example Andra provided of new robotic technology in use in a consumer setting is the Savioke Relay Hotel Robot Butler. This robot is currently found in four hotel chains across California. The Robot Butler performs minute tasks such as delivering toothbrushes to the guest’s room when the front desk is busy. While people enjoy interacting with the robot, it seems that the main attraction of this device is that it allows guests to avoid interacting with staff when they're not feeling sociable i.e. when they’re tired. We don’t always want to participate in social interactions to obtain items or information we need.

The OSHbot from Lowe’s Innovation Labs in partnership with Fellow Robots is a robotic device designed for use in the retail industry. The OSHbot has proven extremely efficient in hardware stores and home depots, where vast amounts of stock are spread over large areas. The robot can direct a customer to the stock they are searching for, either by leading them to it or displaying the location on a map. In instances where context is needed, such as when asking for complimentary paint colours, the robot starts a video call with a store expert. Thus, the robot frees up staff whilst also ensuring that customers can contact an appropriate staff member when required.

The third and final example Andra provided is the Robotic healthcare is a fast growing sector.

Of course there exists robotic technology used in an even more intimate manner, such as robotic prosthesis supplied for people missing limbs or organs. As technology advances, such devices become more humanistic in aesthetics and function, blurring the line between biology and technology. It’s not hard to imagine a future in which robotic prosthesis are commonplace and can greatly enhance the quality of people’s lives.

Future Days

The technology blended reality Andra talks about is already here, it is just not as evident as science fiction predicts it to be. Instead, subtle robotic technology exists in a multitude of everyday devices, taking on many forms and completing an incredible variety of tasks. We use robotic technology to speed up and assist with general activities. We use it to perform extremely complicated tasks. We also use it to further the human experience, and as a result to learn more about our species and what it means to be a human.

As robotic technology advances and begins to permeate all areas of society and industry, our technology blended reality will surprise us in ways we can barely imagine, improving our lives and enhancing the world for all.

For further information on this topic, and a full list of all related documentation, please visit the Robotics section of Computing and Technology.  

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