Rise of the automatons

Model of a robot based on drawings by Leonardo...

Model of a robot based on drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t help feeling that every robot in production today is rubbish.

Brought up on a diet of science fiction films and books, I expect my robots to kick ass. There should be something remarkable about them. After all, C3P0 understands over 6 million forms of communication. The T-1000 is made of liquid metal and can emulate any creature it touches (or skewers with a pointy bit of its anatomy). In comparison, all modern robots are depressingly mundane.

Robots are extensively used in manufacturing. Apart from Morgans, Bentleys and a smattering of low volume models, pretty much every car on sale today is assembled robotically. Robots were built for repetitive humdrum work. Sure, cars are much more reliable these days – but where’s the romance in that?

When he wasn’t busy designing parachutes and helicopters, Leonardo da Vinci came up with a sketch of a robot over 500 years ago and I don’t think he’d be too impressed at how far we’ve come either. There’s no doubting the utility of robots. They don’t get bored and they don’t complain when they’re placed in hostile environments, but don’t expect any scintillating conversation.

Camel racing is immensely popular in Arab countries and until recently, they were jockeyed by small children. Usually, these children would have been taken from their parents and kept in appalling conditions, a practise  universally condemned by detractors. Nowadays, they race with robot jockeys made in the form of humans so as not to spook the camels. Sounds great, but if you’re going to have robot races, get rid of the camels and give the robots weapons – much more exciting.

There are 4,000 robots serving in the US military but alas not in the role of stormtrooper. They are mainly in bomb disposal. The Mars rover is a robot. At least it’s on another planet, but it hasn’t got a mind of its own and receives instructions from NASA. In 2007, robotics expert Henrik Christensen predicted that people would be having sex with robots within 4 years, so in theory the world has enjoyed robot nookie for the last 12 months.

Take me to your leader!

Take me to your leader! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think it’s going to be a long time before we get truly remarkable individual robots, but collectively, they show a lot more promise. The University of Michigan has developed a robot army that at the flick of a switch will turn into a reconnaissance team which can map out a location and pick out items of interest such as earthquake victims, IEDs or enemy robots.

If you find yourself surrounded by wasps in Afghanistan, there is every chance that they are not the yellow and black ones you’re used to. The British military special forces use miniature vehicles called wasps and they carry a very powerful sting in the form of C4 explosive, handy when faced with snipers.

With the advent of nanotechnology, scientists are quite literally “growing” microscopic robots. In time, these robots should be able to self replicate which doomsayers say will result in the world being consumed by an army of grey goo. The possibilities for such a technology are almost limitless, which means I really will be able to say to a machine one day “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot!”


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