9:06 am
Tue July 13, 2004

I, Yi, Yi, Robot

Wally thinks robots are facinating.

Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear Wally's commentary.]

What do you think of when you hear the word "robot?" Is it something like R2-D2 from Star Wars? Or is it an alien-looking creature that welds car bodies?

In this Postcard from the Digital Age we're going to talk about the romance and the reality of robots.

This month, the film I, Robot, will be, as they say, "in theaters everywhere." With a star like Will Smith, you can expect the movie to be funny, and if it's based on something by Isaac Asimov, you can expect the story to be good.

Well, maybe. I, Robot may or may not be a great movie, but it is the latest manifestation of a fascination that we humans have had with the idea of robots for just about as long as we've been able to imagine.

The Greeks imagined statues that moved. In the Eighteenth Century folks were fascinated by the automatons that could, among other things, play chess.

Today, when most of us think of robots, we imagine something humanoid. For that you can thank the great writers of science fiction's golden era, including Karel Capek and Isaac Asimov.

It was Capek who gave us the term "robot" in his play RUR in the 1920s. "Robot" comes from the Czech word that means "forced labor." In RUR humanoid robots became more precise and reliable than humans and almost took over the world.

Isaac Asimov wrote a lot about robots. Actually he wrote a lot about a lot of things. In his lifetime, Isaac Asimov published over 500 volumes of science, science fiction, history and more. I want to be like him when I grow up.

Among all his works are the remarkable Foundation Series and "Nightfall" which I think is the best science fiction story ever written, as well as volumes about biology and the Bible. And there is "I, Robot," a collection of stories published in 1950. That's where Asimov outlined his "Laws of Robotics" that have influenced the way science fiction writers have treated robots ever since.

The robots of most of science fiction are not mrely humanoid. Usually they can live and work and learn and react like humans. They're what most of us imagine when we hear the word, "robot."

So, there was "I, Robot" the book and, now, there is "I, Robot" the movie to give us a fictional view of robots. There is also iRobot the company, which is as good an example as any of where the romance and reality of robots diverge.

iRobot is a real company today in the real town of Somerville, Massachusetts. They make robots. Not one of the robots they make looks remotely like a human being.

One robot they make is PackBot. Packbot isn't really a robot according to the classic definition. It's more like a radio-controlled car on steroids. The Army is using Packbots to check out caves and bunkers in Afghanistan and Iraq.

That's one thing robots are doing today. They're doing things that are dangerous for humans. Those include disarming bombs and disposing of hazardous materials.

Robots are also doing things that they can do better than we can. Some of those things are big heavy jobs like welding auto bodies and moving them around the plant.

Robots are also better than we are at tasks that require small and precise motions. Surgeons use robot technology to help with thoracic, abdominal, pelvic, and neurological surgery.

That's all wonderful, but the reality is that, despite decades of flamboyant predictions, we haven't been able to put together the science and engineering to make human-like robots. Sure, we have developed robots that can do lots of important work, but I'm not impressed.

I don't have a factory where I can use a robot. What I dream of is a robot that will clean the bathroom properly without supervision. I know that's a daunting task. Heck, it's had to get humanoid teenagers to do it right.

Maybe, though, just maybe with some good engineering and concentrated effort we can have such a robot in my lifetime.