8 Cool Things about Robotics

Robots are perhaps the most polarizing subjects in pop culture. They are either great servants who seek to do us good, like the friendly robot anomaly Andrew Martin in Bicentennial Man, or the hilariously provocative Number Five in Short Circuit. Or, they are malevolent, ingenuous beings bent on the total enslavement and/or destruction of the human race. See such films as I, Robot, the Terminator franchise, and The Matrix series for those types.

It’s possible that in the future mankind will foolishly equip robots with the proper circuitry to enable them to conquer the planet. But for now we are safe because robots are still slow, inefficient, and above all, NOT sentient.  

Here are 8 cool things you may not have known about robotics:

1. The Origin of the Word “Robot”

Surprisingly, the term “robot” was not coined by a white-coated scientist hunkered down in his laboratory. It was actually a playwright named Karel Capek who came up with the word for his 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Think of R.U.R. as a 1920’s version of I, Robot mixed with Planet of the Apes.

R.U.R. centers on a world where artificial humans are created from biological material to become servants. When their human masters begin abusing them, the robots stage a rebellion and massacre everyone.  Unable to reproduce, the robots seem destined to eventually die out themselves. But a lone scientist at last redeems humanity and offers the robots a chance to survive by constructing a male and female. Together, this pair wander off to become a sort of mechanical Adam and Eve. 

2. The Fearsome, the Terrifying, the Golem

Hollywood producers have played on people’s fears of a global robot takeover for decades. However, the idea of something man-made suddenly taking on a will of its own and turning on its creator is a fear that has long plagued mankind. Today when people imagine a malevolent robot they might think of the T-800 from Terminator. But centuries ago people dreaded the golem, an inanimate clay model that could be brought to life by speaking the name of God, according to Jewish mystics.  

One of the most famous stories about the golem came from Rabbi Judah Loew the Maharal of Prague, a rabbi in the 16th century. He was reported to have created a golem to defend the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks.  But the golem soon became bigger and more violent until it started killing the very people it was supposed to protect. Rabbi Loew finally ended the golem’s reign of terror by inscribing the Hebrew word meaning “death” on its forehead.

As the legend goes, the body of the golem was later stolen and buried in a graveyard in Zizkov, where the Zikovska Tower now stands. It was there years later when a Nazi soldier ascended to try and stab the golem, but was mysteriously killed instead. The attic remains closed to the public to this day.

For a more recent, pop culture interpretation of the golem, check out the Annihilator from the DC Universe. Invincible and fueled by aggression, the Annihilator is the product of both the golem myth and the Greek myth concerning Talos. Talos, as you’ll recall, made a famous appearance in the classic Jason and the Argonauts, and arguably could be considered the first fictional robot that defied mankind.     

3. Degrees of Freedom

Writing with a pencil, shaking hands, and waving to a friend are all things humans take for granted when they use their hands and fingers. But when you do those things you are actually exercising up to 23 degrees of freedom. One degree of freedom can basically be represented by every independent mode of motion.

What does this have to do with robotics? Creating degrees of freedom has consistently been one of the most challenging assignments for engineers for decades. Say you wanted to make a robot that could move around. You would have to install hardware equipped with the proper moving parts. These moving parts, or “actuators” as they’re called, could be in the form of wheels, legs, wings, or fins. But whatever form of actuator you choose, for every degree of freedom you want to allow your robot, you have to construct a separate bit of equations for the software that will control your robot’s movements.

A robot that only moves back and forth on the carpet on a set of wheels independently does not require a great deal of computer power because there are only two degrees of freedom involved. But try making a robot that can walk up stairs, carry luggage, or anything else we humans can do, and you’ll find that it becomes increasingly complicated to factor in each degree of freedom.

To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, consider Honda’s Asimo. At 6-foot, 460 lbs, Honda spent over 10 years developing this humanoid at a cost of almost $100 million. It’s capabilities: walking gingerly, climbing a flight of stairs, and even conducting an orchestra.

When you factor the costs involved, and the limitations of computer power, it will probably be decades before scientists create robots that can perform actions even close to what humans can do with ease.  And even then, artificial intelligence may not be a reality, in which case robots will still be controlled entirely by human-designed software. So, no need to fear Honda’s Asimo becoming a global dictator anytime soon.

4. Insect Inspiration

In their quest to make robots than can move around on legs, scientists have looked to the insect world for inspiration. Specifically, it is the movements of insects like the cockroach, with its “tripod gait,” that has given engineers a leg-up in their research.

If you’ve ever caught a cockroach scurrying around in your kitchen, your first instinct was probably to crush it before it got away. However, cockroaches, as do other six-legged creepy crawlies, exercise a profound method of walking known as the tripod gait. This gait allows them to lift three legs in the air when moving forward while leaving three legs on the ground for support (thus resembling a tripod if seen from overhead). Not only does this gait allow insects to support six legs, but it gives them greater speed to avoid predators, not to mention the sole of your shoe.

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University have designed hexapods that follow the tripod gait of insects. One researcher, a biologist named Robert Full at Berkley, has gone so far as to put roaches on treadmills to measure the electrical impulses in their muscles while recording them on video. Ever wonder how a roach can scurry away so fast despite its bulk? It’s because, as Full discovered, their muscles operate like a spring, allowing a roach to propel itself forward as though it were on auto pilot.

Is it worth it to create robots that can move around like insects? Consider that after the 9/11 attacks the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue orchestrated a number of robots for help in exploration and assessment of the ruins, as well as in the hunt for survivors. A robot that could move around like an insect would certainly be invaluable for poking into places where wheels or tracks would not suffice. But again, it is the degrees of freedom and all the computations involved therein that limit this development.

5. Hopping bots, snakebots, and scuttlebots

Insects are not the only creatures that have given scientists inspiration for creating robots of myriad variety. Everything from grasshoppers, snakes to fish have offered researchers ideas on robotic movements and functions.

Marc Raibert at the MIT Leg Laboratory created the famous hopping robot in the 1980s that bounced on one leg like a pogo stick and could even turn somersaults. In 2008, Christopher M. Schmidt-Wetekam won the Rudee Research Expo Aware for inventing a self-transforming reaction wheel-stabilized climbing rover. In the video below, Christopher explains the particulars of his robot creation:

During the 1990s, NASA became interested in using snakebots for exploration on other planets. Its research lead to Snakebot I, which required complete outside control by a user. Snakebot II, however, gained some autonomous control via several microcontrollers that allowed the main computer to focus on more important decisions.

The German MAKRO Project in the late 90s yielded a snakebot with a more commercial application: searching through sewage drain pipes.   

Robot fish have been used to investigate Gray’s Paradox. In the 1930s, a researcher named Sir James Gray decided to investigate how much power was required for dolphins to swim as fast as they do. What he found was dolphins required ten times as much power to propel themselves through water than what it appeared their muscles produced when swimming. This paradox later bore his name, and has remained a mystery to scientists for many years.

Starting in 1995 with the robot tuna, MIT eventually came to develop a robot pike that duplicated the flesh and bone structure of a pike with plastic. While the robot pike can turn and swim underwater, it can’t travel nearly as fast as a real pike.

Finally, a US company called iRobot has developed a scuttlebot to hunt for mines on beaches and underwater. Resembling a crab, Aerial, as it is named, is completely autonomous, can walk sideways on six legs, can adapt its gait if one leg gets damaged, and can even adjust its walking if it gets turned upside down.

6. A Robot’s Nose Knows

It’s estimated that humans have anywhere between 5 million and 15 million smell receptors in their noses. Dogs have anywhere between 125 million and 250 million. Installing smell sensors in robots of that number is still far beyond anything that has yet been engineered. But scientists may one day build robots that can detect explosives, rotting meat, or gas—capabilities that would offer invaluable assistance to law enforcement, the military, or in food inspection.

At the University of Portsmouth in England, researchers have created a robot dubbed “Smelly.” Smelly has smell receptors installed at the end of its two tubes, which draw in odors with the use of a small air pump.

The University of Pisa in Italy has built a handheld device that can detect, of all things, the presence of olive oil aromas.

A European Union project started in 2001 aims to build a fleet of artificial chemosensing moths for use in environmental monitoring.   

7. Robocup

Imagine it’s the year 2050. You switch on the television, or whatever form of entertainment module is created by then. You surf between a soap opera, a reality TV show (which are inexplicably still popular), and then come upon a soccer game played entirely by humanoid robots. Impossible? Actually, it’s already somewhat a reality.

In 1997 the Japanese roboticist Hiroaki Kitano established RoboCup. His aim was to create a forum in which a variety of emerging technologies could be assessed and integrated within the broader field of robotics. His primary challenge: To create a team of humanoid robots capable of beating the human soccer championship team by the year 2050.

While Robocup may seem like just a place for scientists to play with their robot toys, it actually provides a perfect environment for engineers to exercise various problems related to making robots useful. Each robot must know where the ball is in play, where the goals are, where its position is in relation to the other players, and who its opponents are. Additionally, robots must work together on their on teams to function best. These are all problems that if remedied would make robots practical not just in a sports arena but in law enforcement, the military, as well as in a host of commercial applications.

8. Energy Problems

One thing that has made advances in robotics difficult is the energy issue. Even were it possible today to construct a robot that could function practically, have a high number of degrees of freedom, and act autonomously, how would you power it? Common household batteries barely supply adequate fuel for even the simplest of robots.

Fuel cells have become one good source of power for robots. But they tend to be bulky and can restrict a robot’s movements. They also require frequent refueling for the robot to operate properly. The University of Sherbrooke in Canada has built robots capable of reading red signs that indicate a batter refueling station. So it appears that for now robots will either have to stay plugged in or recharge themselves if they are function. At least until some more advanced form of energy technology comes along.    


For more info on robotics, check out these sources:

Robots: Bringing Intelligent Machines to Life, by Ruth Aylett.

My novel Nemesis, a psychological thriller, is available on Amazon.

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