Imagine the future. In your home, you have robots that take your dirty clothes and clean them for you, automatically managing all the details like detergent, water temperature, and drying time. There is another robot that knows when you leave, turning down the heat to save energy while you’re gone, then turning it on again right before you get home. At work, you use a robot to safely climb hundreds of feet into the air in seconds. And on your drive back, a robot carefully monitors your surroundings, controlling your car’s engine to keep you moving at a safe, efficient speed.
If you’re like many people, this future is now. Smart washers and dryers actively monitor their loads, ensuring clothes are clean with minimal human input. Thermostats turn on and off the flow of natural gas, heating oil, or electricity to achieve your desired temperature, and can follow programmed or learned schedules to keep you comfortable while saving energy. Elevators automatically control powerful motors to smoothly lift the elevator car, and can even arrange stops to maximize efficiency. And adaptive cruise control uses radar and other sensors to drive your car at a set speed while maintaining a safe distance from other vehicles.
But these things aren’t really robots, right? Not so fast. While these devices might seem commonplace, they actually share the same features that define more advanced robots, and, in fact, that is exactly what they are. To paraphrase the IEEE, a robot is a device that:
- Receives an objective
- Senses its environment
- Takes an action
- Achieves its objective
Many machines qualify as robots even if they at first seem simple. Robots work by moving through a … [+]
An elevator’s objective is to safely reach a given floor; it senses things like drum rotation and cable length; and it takes action by varying the electrical current — and consequently the speed — of its hoisting motors. A dryer’s objective is to dry clothes; it senses the temperature and moisture level of the laundry; and it takes action by varying the speed it spins and the temperature of its air blower. In fact, each of these robots in turn depend on other robotic modules embedded within them. For example, elevator doors use infrared beams to detect obstructions when they are about to close, and dryers use thermostats to maintain the correct air temperature.
These same principles apply equally to the more advanced robots that usually spring to mind. A welding robot’s goal is to follow the weld paths required by the parts in process; its sensors may include cameras, infrared beams, and the position and torque of each joint; and its outputs include gas flow to the welding torch and the currents to each of its arm motors. A self-driving car is a robot, too. Its goal is to safely reach a destination while abiding by the local traffic laws; its sensors include things like cameras, lidar, radar, sonar, wheel speed, and GPS; and its outputs are the throttle, brakes, and steering angle of the front wheels.
While these robots may look more “robot-y” than a thermostat or an elevator, at the end of the day, they all function along the same core principles: receive objective, sense environment, act to achieve objective. And in fact, these principles are embodied in most of the mechanical and electronic systems that we rely on every day. As the old robotics joke goes, “What do you call a useful robot?” The answer: “A machine.”
So if the robots are already among us, then what’s next? A few more robots, doing a few more things. The robots won’t achieve sentience. They won’t steal 40% of jobs. They won’t take over the world and turn humans into batteries. In other words, the slow, steady march of technological progress will continue.
But that’s not to say that we’re standing still: new sensors like lidar are giving robots the ability to perceive with more accuracy than ever before, and new ML-driven algorithms are helping robots take smarter, safer actions. And just as importantly, economic factors like the ongoing labor shortage and trade war with China are driving companies’ need for automation and efficiency gains. But at the end of the day, robots are just useful machines built by humans, for humans. And that’s pretty cool.