In the West, it’s a different story. Many people are afraid of robots and I want to know where this fear comes from. This is Eric, a scary, mechanical man born in 1928. He is the very first British robot. He is on disply in the Science Museum in London and I think he could help explain why people are unnerved by them.
Eric may be a towering, six-foot-two mechanical marvel. but he does have the look of a human about him. What also humanised Eric was that he could talk. For some people Eric must have been intimidating, a knight in armour with light bulbs painted red for his eyes and 25,000 volts of electricity causing blue sparks to shoot from his jagged teeth.
Eric was a novelty act, built to open an exhibition, but he disappeared from history. Curator Ben Russell built a modern replica of Eric. “In the 1920s, they seemed quite obsessed with making robots in human form.” “We are fascinated by ourselves. It’s what we do as humans. Actually, we try to antropomorphise; we love to recreate ourselves.
It’s actually a quite powerful proposition: I think I am like this, I am a machine. Robots are really like mirrors, they make you think about yourself.” In the 1920s, that mirror reflected an image of a fearsome robot and it was already deeply embedded in a cultural imagination by a dark dystopian novel robot. The word ‘robot’ comes from a 1920s’ Czech novel R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) and means ‘drudgery’. It has become a familiar plot. Robots lived amongst us, but eventually rebelled and exterminated the human race. It’s way ahead of its time: 50 years ahead of Blade Runner and West World and all those sort of films. Robots are very useful for film makers. They put people off balance and filmmakers can exploit that. “
For me what really matters is not how robots behave and work in fiction, but they can actually do in the real world. What people worry about more than anything else is that they will take our jobs.
I am in Mansfield, a rust belt backwater in Ohio to track down one of the first robots that could move. Movement is what gives robots their power and sowed the seed for them to compete for our jobs. It began with the first ever robot salesman. Before WWII, Mansfield was dominated by the mighty Westinghouse Electric Company, one of the world’s largest home appliance manufacturers. They harnessed a new form of energy that was rapidly making machines parts of every day life, electricity. This provided the spark for the developement of robotic movement To help sell their electric appliances in 1937 and to show off their technical capabilities, Westinghouse Electric created a robot and its name was Electro.
Standing seven foot tall and weighing in a 20 stone, Electro was an instant celebrity. It was electric power that enabled Electro to move and perform tricks. Today, at Manfield’s memorial museum, Electro is still on show. Frank Ruth, 84 years old took in the early 1940s single-handedly Electro on a tour across the United States. He explains that Electro was controlled using single syllable words spoken into a two-way microphone. The words were converted into electrical impulses by a photoelectric tube inside Electro’s chest. These impulses set off a series of relays which triggered Electro’s motors and activated his tricks. It didn’t matter which words were used as long as they were spoken in a staccato fashion.
Thanks to Electro, robots were on the move. Electro’s movement was very basic; he could only perform a few simple tricks. Yet, he captured the world’s imagination. The next step to enable robots to play a more useful role in society was to try to make their hands perfectly imitate human hands.
Our hands are made up of muscles, ligaments, tendons, nerves and each one has 27 bones. All of these are crucial if we use our hands with precision. The human hand is incredibly complex. Every independant movement of a joint is known as a degree of freedom. This means our hands are highly manoeuvrable. To create robots with flexible, dexterous hands, robot makers turned away from industry to something that required more artistry: music.
I’ve come to the Waseda University’s humanoid robotics institute in Tokyo to meet the next key robot in the evolution of movement: a keyboard player. Dr. Sugano was part of the Waseda team that built Wabot 2 in 1984. Wabot’s fingers have 16 degrees of freedom in total and the whole robot has 50 degrees of freedom in total. To control the 50 degrees of freedom, Dr. Sugano took advantage of one of the breakthrough technologies of the early 1980s, the microcomputer.
They decided to introduce 60-bits microcomputers, which means that they could implement more intelligence. Wasob 2 has very human-like fingers. His microcomputers are a highly sofisticated version of Electro’s control units that tell Wasob 2 exactly how to move. The micro computers mimic the human nervous system and transmit signals along Wabot 2’s electrical cables to its fingers so that he can strike keys 20 times per second, so much faster than a human. Amazingly, Wabot 2’s fingers outperform the fastest human players.
“Hi speed means high power, so I introduced small, but very high output motors that will realise a very quick response. I also introduced new materials, like carbon fibre.” Wabot 2 might have played his final encore, but for me his legacy endures. This Japanese robot enhanced people’s lives and showcased the potential for robots to take on more sophisticated tasks.
The human has is so massively complex that so far no one has been able to mass-produce a robotic version of it, but this hasn’t stopped robot hands from developing and it is this that gives them the potential to do many of the jobs that we do.
Robots now follow their own revolutionary path, rather than mimicking ours. They are developing hands unique to them. At Mini’s car plant on the outskirts of Oxford, this is a land of robots, more than 900 of them fill the bodies of 1,000 new cars every single day with barely a human in sight. “I feel like I am in robotic Jurassic Park. These robots feel strong and powerful and a little bit menacing, this new species have found their habitat and they are thriving and they have replaced humans on the factory floor.
To understand why these robots are thriving here, I need to speak to a human. Alex McKenzie is a quality specialist at the plant. “Robots are predictable and not perfect, but predictable.” They perform pre-programmed repetitive tasks much more reliably than humans. 650 humans work alongside the robots in the welding area alone. “It’s a change in skill set. Previous manufactoring methods have been heavily dependant upan manual hand skills. Now, it’s more the automation, it’s all done on the computer. It’s programming work, it’s observation, setting up sensors, that kind of thing.”
With powerful, predictable robot arms and highly skilled people managing them, the manufacturers believe they can produce better quality and cheaper cars. It is a pattern, repeated in factories all over the world. “The advancement in technology has led to certainly efficiencies in cost which allow you to attain those efficiencies in quality as well for a low price.”
With their claws, stumps and one-fingered hands, robots have gone through their own version of natural selection. This mutation away from the human form has transformed our job market. Worldwide factories are filled with over 3 million industrial robots. We’ve built a robot world and kept them safely contained in cages, for now.
Some experts predict that by 2030 robots could have taken up to 30% of our jobs, but we thought had been here before. Many people were concerned about the pace of change during the industrial revolution, yet in general it led to wealth and prosperity. I think we should embrace the robot revolution, not fear it.
Walking on legs is bipedal locomotion and it helps distinguish us from other animals. Apart from other apes, they are one of the key things that set us apart. We walk fluidly without thinking too much about it and our balance is effortless. For robots walking on two legs is not straightforward. That is because it the most difficult movement they make.
At Waseda University, I want to find out how engineers pioneered a groundbreaking transformation in robotic walking. Their first challenge was to build legs that were flexible enough and powerful enough to walk independently like a human.
Built in 1985, WHL 2 is one of the first bipedal autonomous walking robots with feet at the bottom, knees and a hip. Dr. Fuji helped create a robot that mirrors our biological anatomy with mechanical anatomy. WHL2’s legs are jus under a meter tall, the same size as our human legs. We control the rotation of our joints with muscles. In robots, this is done by actuators that control the movement. To walk independently, dr. Fuji helped engineer a small lightweight hydraulic motor that could be mounted on WHL2’s waist. In the mid 1980s this was cutting-edge technology. WHL2 was capable of just 5 steps a minute.
When humans first became bipedal like WHL2, we had a slow lumbering gate too. As our pelvis evolved, we could shift our center of gravity, our walking became fast and smooth. Just around the corner of WHL2, there is a robot that solved this next evolutionary hurdle. Built just 20 years after WHL2, this is Wabian2. It is one of the first robots with a human-like pelvis. This gives it the ability to walk faster and more fluidly.
It was invented by professor Atsuo Takanishi. Wabian2 mirrors our human gait by shifting its center of gravity. Fully extending the knees liberates the feet and propels the robot’s center of gravity forwards. As it shifts backwards, one of the feet lands and then the other foot takes off, just like we do.
It was millions of years before humans learned to walk on two legs. By following our evolutionary path, these pioneering robots have mastered bipedal locomotion in just decades.
But now, on the outskirts of Boston, world-renowned robot maker is trying to take this emerging species in a completely different direction by liberating machines from the constraints of human form.
Robot walking had diverged from our evolutionary path and taken on a life of its own. Atlas is one of the most advanced moving robots on the planet. More than just a master of moving, it’s the ultimate combination of mobility, agility, dexterity and speed and the woods near Boston are its playground. The robot was built to tackle the toughest terrain in the toughest conditions.
Kevin Blankespoor is the vice-president of Boston Dynamics’ controls department. The robots Kevin has helped mastermind push the frontier of robotic movement. For some their high-tech creations are terrifying, but for me they are inspiring.
Atlas is probably the only humanoid robot walking around outside in the snow and in the mud, like in the real world. It’s battery powered. The battery basically spins an electric motor that turns a hydraulic pump and that provides hydraulic fluid to all the actuators.
“We are big fan of that, because it is really strong and really fast. They are also really robust. We don’t take it easy on the robots. It’s about a meter and a half tall and weighs about 90 kg. Atlas walks in a similar way to us. To cope with the obstacles and different terrains in our human environment, Atlas’s balance is guided by dozens of onboard sensors. Its rotating head is the perception system. It is basically his version of how it sees the world the way a person would.
There are two main sensors: a stereo vision looks out several meters and that helps it find good footholds, avoid obstacles and a lidar that basically is a laser range finder. It has 32 laser range finders that spin around and give you about million points per second where the world is around it which help it detect walls and other obstacles to navigate through them.
The joints have a position sensor and a force sensor and there is a gyroscope in the pelvis. So, with all these sensors, we are kind of always sensing how we are falling, so that’s the key part. Many of their robots are inspired by animals. The limitations of human form have been removed.
BigDog, their first robot was designed for the military carrying a heavy payload through terrain that vehicles find impossible.
Their latest creation on the right is a hybrid robot with legs and wheels with a top speed of 9 miles an hour and a range of 15 miles
Handle has the upper body borrowed from Atlas, with the same arms and torso, but the arms are mounted to the pelvis, so the big torso is free to move back and forth and this creates a critical element for balance. The lower body is entirely new. The constraints of a human form are taken off; it has spinning wheels added to the legs. It is far more stable and efficient, and less complex than other legged robots which is a big advantage. It has a long battery and is stable and fast, so it can work at a rapid rate.
I have seen some amazing machines here at Boston Dynamics: two-legged humanoid robots, four-legged robots that look like animals, the latest incarnations that that combine biology with technology mixing and matching animals, humans, our own inventions, the wheel. It may seem unnatural, but it makes complete sense at the same time.
We are only beginning to understand the potential of this emerging species. Building robots that mimic humans continues to spark the imagination, but now robots have adaptations that follow a very different evolutionary track, with mutant hands and hybrid limbs. It has been a relevation to understand the origins of our relationship with robots and even why some people really do fear them. There is no doubt, they have restructured the jobs’ market and this will continue, but the biggest thing has been how fast robots are developing. We need to engage in this fascinating phenomenon to make sure that we have the choice over what we want robots to do for all of us.
Still it is one thing if robots look like us and move like us, but what if they start to think like us.
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