ROBOTICS – CHANCES AND CHALLENGES OF A KEY SCIENCE

Gerhard Schweitzer, ETH Zurich, HUT, 8092 Zurich, Switzerland, g.schweitzer@ggaweb.ch
Abstract. Robotics has been named a key science of the 21st century. The means and methods of mechatronics and robotics are spreading to other engineering sciences, and to medical areas, offering huge chances for novel products. The development of robots into intelligent machines touches upon issues such as the self-understanding of humans, upon socio-economic, legal, and ethical isues. It may be good to step back for a moment and reflect on objectives, on chances, and on limitations and controversial aspects to be considered. Examples for applications in medicine, robots in service and edutainment, robots for work in micro- and nanotechniques, and extensions to embedded robotics will be presented.
1. Introduction
Robotics is an area where a number of scientific fields meet, and this fact already is a source of attraction for the involved scientists, for users, and the public. Expectations run high and in diverse directions.
The word “robot” itself comes from literature and was created in the twenties by Czech poet, Karel Capek, in one of his plays, a play that ended tragically. In the forties, another writer, Isaac Asimov, made robots the leading figures in his utopian novels. Since these times, robots have been subjects of imagination. The reality of industrial robots only came in the sixties when Joseph F. Engelberger introduced the PUMA robot as a freely programmable, universal, handling device. With it came automation in manufacturing industry, economic issues, and social concern about human labour replaced by machines. The versatility of these robot machines has been increasing, largely due to their continuously increasing ability of information processing. The ultimate goal was the autonomous robot. However, as the application field for robots is widening, and the robot is coming out of the factory halls, new challenges are seen, and even a change of paradigm is taking shape. The robot is expected to be an extended, intelligent tool for the human, it should become a partner instead of being a “competitor” in fulfilling tasks, and there is a developing relation to biological systems. This development is illustrated by terms such as behaviour, emotions, or intelligence, taken out of their biological context and used to describe technical features and properties. For example, the term “intelligent” is being used to describe advanced robot behaviour, maybe still rather as a marketing term, but the idea certainly is to give it more meaning.
It is obvious that there are high expectations as to the future potential of robotics, even euphoric ones and somewhat unrealistically utopic (Moravec, 1988). On the other side, there are sceptical views, seeing robotics as one of the most powerful technologies of the 21st century, together with genetic engineering and nanotech (Joy, 2000), threatening to make humans an endangered species. A more moderate and realistic, but still fascinating approach has been taken by a study group, consisting of experts from engineering, medical, philosophical and legal sciences, discussing the provoking question whether humans could be substituted by robots (Christaller et al., 2001).
The paper will give examples of the actual state of the art by referring to nano-manipulation, a human leg prosthesis, and by looking at developments in the medical area, and into embedded robotics. The paper will present some aspects and results discussed by that study group cited above, it will comment on robot intelligence, on expected benefits of future robot technology, as well as on socio-economic, legal and ethical constraints.
2. About intelligence
As robots of the future are supposed to show some kind of intelligence let us first look at various meanings of that term. A history of intelligence (Stonier, 1992) names a number of different approaches to explain and to categorise intelligence and its aspects. To illustrate the broadness of the issue some of the “definitions” will be summarised. In biology, intelligence is considered to support survival and to further natural selection. It thus, in principle, could be extended from humans and mammals to bacteria or plants as well. In physics and chemistry about anything can be retraced to the skilful arrangement of molecules, and certainly the research on the signal transmission between neurons in a brain has been profiting from this attitude.
In communication theory there are measures for intelligence based on entropy-related values. In social sciences the term “collective intelligence” characterises the performance of knowledge handling structures such as libraries, legal systems, databases, or even the complex behaviour of an ant population. Artificial Intelligence, a spring-off from computer science, as it stands now, appears to require some embodiment to make intelligence actually work (Christaller, 1999, Pfeiffer, 2000). The anthropocentric approach puts the human into the centre of consideration and regards intelligence as a capability of humans, as the core of their social competence, and as the ability to deal with reasons. Obviously, there is no way to come to a generally accepted definition of intelligence. Probably there is no need
either, as there are other terms, such as “information”, which has never been defined unanimously, and nevertheless it is the basis for a flourishing science.
The term robot intelligence could be justified by its usefulness to characterise some very desirable, human-like features, to be implemented in robots. In particular, a robot that should be useful to humans as a tool or even a partner, should be able to communicate with its human users on a reasonably high level, it should be able to “understand”. Certainly, there are various levels of understanding that may have to be defined, giving measures of such an intelligence. This stepwise approach may be less stringent than the classical definition of artificial intelligence using the Turing test (Turing, 1950) but it could be more pragmatic and constructive. Thus, the ability for communication with humans could be the basis of an anthropocentrically oriented robot intelligence.
3. Trends and expected benefits
The leading role of robotics is based on its inherent technology potential and, in particular, its relations to areas beyond technology. In comparison, the direct economic impact of robotics appears to be rather small. As robotics is a multidisciplinary area, expectations are very diverse as well. Subsequently some trends and potential benefits will be outlined for different areas.
3.1. Technology
Robotics can be regarded as a typical and representative part of Mechatronics, as a cutting edge technology in this rapidly expanding research field (Schweitzer, 1996). Mechatronics combines in a synergetic way the classical engineering disciplines mechanical and electrical engineering and computer science, leading to new kinds of products. It can be stated that any technical progress in robotics will quickly spread over to products of every day life and may eventually initiate further progress. Automotive technology for modern cars, for example, in making advanced use of sensors for controlling their dynamics and assisting in safe driving are following ideas from robotics (Hiller et al., 2001). In addition to that, the need for low-priced sensors in mass-produced cars has subsequently spurred the industrialisation of micro technology in a very sustainable way.
Methods of robotics and mechatronics serve, beyond the individual product, as guidelines for the development of complete systems. Thus, the name system robotics or embedded robotics has been coined, to desribe the integration of sensors, control, actuators and information processing into a system. This can be a car, an automated traffic control system, a military air defence system, medical service and human care systems, or the safety and energy management system of a building. There are already names such as cartronics, or domotronics, characterizing these new fields (Schweitzer, 2003).
A very promising area is nano-techniques. Results from physics research are already available, but exploiting and using them on an industrial scale needs highly automated processes, it needs the transfer of technology known from robotics. In addition, this technology will be the basis for novel products in medical techniques, for techno-implants, or for prostheses.
An actual research topic in robotics is the development of “soft computing”, i.e. learning algorithms and the interpretation of uncertain data from unstructured environments with methods such as fuzzy logic, neural nets or genetic algorithms.
The spread-over to smart machine technology, with self-calibration, self-diagnostics, and self-tuning control loops can already be seen. This will lead to improved safety, reliability, and maintenance procedures for such smart machines, and there the expected economic benefits are obvious (Schweitzer, 1998).
Another important area that is profiting from the advances in robotics is the control of complex dynamical systems. Examples are humanoid robots, as well as vehicles, construction machinery, machine tools, or prostheses for limbs and hands. On one side, it is the non-linear, model based, adaptive control that makes novel machine tools with parallel kinematic structures feasible, together with hard real-time operating systems, being used already in mobile robots. On the other side, bio-inspired behavioural control will lead to intelligent mobile robots moving smoothly in unstructured environments. Ideas for such a kind of control architecture are derived from motor control in animals. The relation between robotics and biology, however, goes beyond that and will be considered subsequently.

About basicrulesoflife

Year 1935. Interests: Contemporary society problems, quality of life, happiness, understanding and changing ourselves - everything based on scientific evidence. Artificial Intelligence Foundation Latvia, http://www.artificialintelligence.lv Editor.
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