Robots have been around in some form or another for decades. Ever since the play “R.U.R.” in the 1920’s, humanity has been entranced at the thought of mechanical humans serving and working alongside us. Scientists and engineers have been hard at work ever since, perfecting the art of robotics in general and humanoid robots (also known as “androids”) especially. Now, with recent advances in the fields of artificial intelligence, machine vision, and sensor technology we’re quickly approaching the day when androids walk the streets with us.
First, a little background – In 1921 famed writer Karel Kapek debuted the play R.U.R., short for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”. In this play, the titular Rossum creates artificial people for the purposes of servitude. These beings, which he dubs “robots”, are nearly indistinguishable from people, possessing both a humanoid form and human intelligence. As often happens in science fiction, the robots eventually take over the world, and humans eventually go extinct. Despite the downer ending, R.U.R. became an inspirational work, and even though Rossum’s creations were more biological or organic in nature, the term “robot” stuck around as scientists and engineers began to dream of human-like automata to help us in our tasks.
It took nearly half a century from that point before the first real-world robots began taking a human shape. In 1973 the Japanese “Wabot-1” became the first recognized android. Physically speaking, this early machine was primitive – it was essentially a boxy metal frame on to which motors, sensors, and actuators had been attached. Despite this, Wabot-1 was able to walk, talk, and make simplistic measurements of its environment.
Despite these humble beginnings, several other organizations got on the android bandwagon. In the year 2000 the Honda corporation unveiled the first version of their humanoid robot ASIMO (short for Advanced Step in Innovative MObility). This robot was specifically designed with a childlike stature so that it could more easily assist adult humans who were sitting on a chair or lying on a bed. ASIMO has gone through several iterations since its beginnings, and nowadays sports such advanced features as object, gesture, and facial recognition, the ability to run at over 5mph, and advanced voice recognition.
This is where the modern state of humanoid robotics is. The latest advances in machine vision allow things like facial and gesture recognition, which allow a robot to seamlessly handle the all-too-important of interacting with humans in an intuitive and natural manner. Machine vision also allows for sophisticated navigation and obstacle detection, thus enabling androids to walk around an environment completely unassisted by their biological counterparts. All of this is fed in to highly developed artificial intelligence (“AI”) software, allowing our robotic friends to recognize context and make decisions like we’ve never known before.
All of this leaves us in a world where we are on the cusp of realizing Kapek’s dream – a dream where artificial people roam the world assisting us with the same deftness and intelligence that we have always enjoyed. Hopefully, we will also heed the lesson taught in R.U.R. and manage our relationship with our cybernetic brethren more gracefully.