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Robotics From The 1960’s To Today: A Personal Opinion*

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Dr. Ing. Kimon P. Valavanis


Robotic manipulators, robots, robotics, humanoids, androids, drones, unmanned systems, smart cars or driverless cars, are nothing but a very small ‘sample’ of words that are, have become, and/or are rapidly becoming ‘normal, every-day’ terms in any language, worldwide. Is this ‘unthinkable’? Is this ‘science fiction’? Is this an illusion humankind is or has become part of? Certainly not! This is not news – welcome to today’s reality. And stay put because tomorrow’s reality is different. Tomorrow, and the very short-term future hold ‘major surprises’ for all of us, to the point one may argue with high certainty that ‘the sky is not the limit’ technology-wise in general, and ‘robotics-wise in particular.

I consider myself very fortunate since, as an individual, I have witnessed unthinkable and unprecedented growth in robotics and automation since I started my graduate studies at Rensellaer polytechnic Institute (RPI) in September of 1981. I was introduced to robotics by one of the greatest minds of his time, the (late) Dr. George N. Saridis (a pioneer and a visionary - many of the advances we witness today were predicted by him), who was also the main force to create the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society, council at that time, and also served as its founding president. Then, the most widely used and understood term was that of a ‘robotic manipulator’, and the main application of robotics was in the auto industry. Research on mobile robotics was centered mostly around a handful of Universities (CMU, MIT, Stanford), while research in underwater robotics was making the first ‘baby steps’ to existence. Drones, or UAVs, or RPA, or RPAS, or even unmanned systems, were terms unknown to the general public, and only those related to the military knew what was going on in ‘aerial robotics’. Even though the academic, research and scientific community were rich of ideas and dreams, real-time robotics applications were very limited mostly because of lack of adequate computational power, but also because of insufficient ‘sensor technology’ and prohibitive cost.

What a difference 37 years have made! Robots are here to stay, robotics is part of our life. Drones (or any other term one prefers) are becoming part of our life. Automation is expanding; there is speculation of a ‘robotized society’ and fear that advances in Artificial Intelligence may allow for ‘robots to take over’. Robots and robotic systems (I use these terms in the most general sense) have found wide utilization in a very wide spectrum of applications: industrial environments, earth, sea-surface, underwater and space environments, medical field, social robotics, service robotics – the list is very long, and I do not even refer to any military utilization of robotics...

As one example, let us focus on aerial robotics: Research, development, and technology have matured to the point that integration of UAVs or RPAS into the national airspace is underway (despite challenges). Amazon wants to deliver packages using drones, and some believe that our pizzas will be delivered to our houses from the sky (using drones). At the same time, Hollywood uses drones to make movies. “Drones everywhere”, one may say, and what is really amazing is that the word ‘drone’ is not even the best one to use for unmanned aviation. It is the ‘easiest’ one adopted by the media because it ‘sells’, but also creates confusion for the general public – this is a very strong personal opinion. I believe that during the next ten years there will be major efforts to create a universally accepted framework for unmanned aviation (similar to the manned aviation one); this is easier said than done. The need for ‘standards’ and ‘technology certification’ will increase. UAV safety at first, system reliability and mid-air collision avoidance will guide developments. NASA is talking about personal air vehicles (PAVs), too. I expect to see new designs for unmanned aviation with a focus on reconfigurability and bio-inspired configurations.

The second example relates to social robotics and their use for robot-based autism therapy and for assisting the elderly, to say the least. Companion robots (CoBots) are being perfected to work in unison with humans and assist humans, while SocioBots and specifically SocioBots-SDSs (SocioBot-Spoken Dialog Systems) are developed in the form of a robotic character with an emotional response, aiming to advance human-machine interactions.

I left for last the most important challenge, although I feel to be the least qualified person on earth to talk about it - using one term to cover everything - “Robot Ethics”. To be more specific, privacy, legal, public policy and ethical issues related to utilization of robotics technology must not be ignored. They must be addressed. Rules and policies must be developed. Boundaries and limits must be established and respected. These challenges cannot be ignored as robotics technology is part of and affects our lives on a daily basis.

It is unclear whether robotics technology and automation will impact society in a negative way. The argument that automation will certainly increase unemployment may be counterbalanced by the argument that technology will also create new ‘types’ of jobs in the future. For sure, though, robots are not used for the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs anymore. Any fear and any uncertainty are understandable. It is not the technology that creates fear, it is the pace/rate of change that makes society uneasy.

Robotics Research within RSECS Funded research in robotics within RSECS centers on social robotics, unmanned systems, mechatronics, computer vision and pattern recognition. For details about specific projects visit the RSECS web site and the corresponding lab web pages.

*This write-up is a variation of a Personal Opinion Paper written for Springer “Life & Robotics: at the intersection of technology and humanity”, and reflects the author's personal point of view.