Robotics crossing the frontier of fantasy

Artificial Intelligence escapes from movie halls to vroom mankind into a brave new world.

Published: 13th August 2016 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 13th August 2016 10:15 AM   |  A+A-

Sometime soon in the grim future. Robots have taken over the world. A rogue Artificial Intelligence (AI) is behind it all. The ‘Resistance’, comprising freedom-loving but tech-savvy humans, sends their robot to save mankind’s fate at the last minute in a dystopian world. “Hasta la vista baby.” The Terminator. Transformers. I, Robot. Most sci-fi movies are about robots and AI subjugating humans, who fight back to reclaim their freedom.

But the robotic world is not all doomsday and fire. Earlier this month, 1,007 dancing robots created a Guinness World Record. Robocop move over; last month, police in Dallas, US, used a bomb-disposal robot, Remotec Androx Mark V A-1, to kill a shooter who had murdered five cops. In a north London borough, a robot named Amelia is deployed as a council services worker, handling queries, permits and licences. She is programmed to understand and respond to queries by interpreting emotion. Gone is expo-curiosity robot, a shining metallic imitation of a human, which says ‘hi’ in a tinny voice and shakes hands. Today’s robots can understand, learn and speak several languages, clean houses, receive guests, drive cars, save lives and even go to war.

The robot made its debut in the popular 1920 play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Czech playwright Karel Čapek. Three decades later, inventor George Devol created the Unimate, the world’s first digital, programmable robot. General Motors bought it eight years later to deploy in high-risk manufacturing areas. This stoked dormant fears of millions of jobs lost to technology. The fear turned out to be untrue. But now the old arguments are making a comeback, as rookie machines get smarter by the day.

Manav, launched at the 2014-15 IIT-Bombay Techfest, is India’s first and only indigenous humanoid robot, created with advanced 3D computer-modelling techniques and 3D printing. It can walk and even dance, obeying voice commands. Its creator Diwakar Vaish, Head, Robotics and Research, A-SET Training & Research Institutes, says it is meant only for research purposes. He believes the time has come for the robotics revolution—assistive robots helping disabled people like the mind-controlled wheelchair invented by his team, robots for household work, care-giver robots, tele-presence robots and many more.

However, high import duty on components, a slow patenting process, unavailability of professional services catering to prototyping and the absence of government aid to boost high-end research spoil growth. Sasi Kiran Gade, Director & CEO of Gade Autonomous Systems Pvt Ltd, says robotic technology will be more popular than the end-product. His company made AdverTron, India’s first marketing and advertising robot. It speaks English, plays music, can be programmed to move around people and objects, acts as a mobile information desk, tour guide, brand mascot and an entertainment robot for shops and exhibitions. At present, there are around 33 robots installed in India with most being in premier educational institutes. Gade says his company has received many inquiries but high cost is keeping potential clients away. He is working on a cost-effective compact version to be launched by the year-end.

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Milagrow HumanTech, the pioneer in domestic robots, makes the best-selling AguaBot 5.0 that cleans and mops floors. Companies engaged in automobiles, electronics and consumer goods are looking at robot to boost efficiency and cut costs. Daniel Friis, Chief Commercial Officer, Universal Robots, says, “We pioneered a robot that completely disrupted the world of automation. We were first movers in collaborative robotics and hold 60 per cent share of a market about to explode. Small and mid-sized manufacturers still represent an untapped market.”

Boston-based Rethink Robotics believes the same. To achieve 90 per cent automation, their Baxter and Sawyer robots adapt to real-world challenges, and are employed in plastics, contract manufacturing and packaging, electronics, automotive, metal fabrication and consumer goods. While traditional industrial robots need time and a programming expert to carry out a new task, Baxter and Sawyer can be trained for a new task just by manipulating their wrists.

When quipped about robots taking people’s jobs, Rethink Robotics says that collaborative robots are designed to work side by side with humans and will be used in monotonous, unsafe jobs. Pulkit Gaur, founder of Gridbots, says there are two types of markets; the first where no choice to a robot exists and the second where the alternative is highly inefficient. This is typically the case in the automobile sector, which uses robots the most in India. However, they are involved only until the production phase. The industry is dependent on manpower to finish the last mile in inspection, secondary and tertiary packaging and transport.

An efficient mix of man and machine, however, is not just a geek’s dream. Some robots stay as a mere doodle on a paper napkin for over a year. Until Harvard professor Kevin Kit Parker, who may be the Frankenstein of the 21st century, went to work and created the world’s first biohybrid robot, the Roboray—a “living robot” whose gold skeleton is encased in a thin rubbery body and is powered by heart cells of rats. This may be the first step on how to build a human heart.

ROBOTICSC.jpg Robots save lives, too. Ground Zero is a bomb disposal IED robot, developed by Gridbots Technologies, Ahmedabad, which protects armed personnel in difficult situations. With more than 1,000 components, it is totally made in India. Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS) of the US military can travel at a top speed of seven mph alongside marines without a recharge for eight to 12 hours. Equipped with a M240 machine gun with 400 rounds, it can even drag wounded soldiers to cover. MAARS is operated by remote control and not AI.

Amazon is creating a robot army to work on its warehouses and drones for delivery. Adidas will use robots in its new factory in Ansbach, Germany. Some countries are already testing driverless cars on public roads. Mercedes-Benz has unveiled its first autonomously driving Freightliner Inspiration Truck and it is approved for public highways in Nevada. Tesla Motors is using semi-autopilot technology in its cars.

In the health sector, robotic surgery is becoming more advanced. With the increasing number of trained robotic surgeons, India may end up being the next robotic surgery hub, outside of the US. Eventually, the cost of robotic consumables will come down making robots more affordable.

Rajeev Karwal, Founder & Director, Milagrow Humantech, says, “Robotics will be the next revolution after mobile phones. Its potential is unimaginable, especially in the treatment of eyes, heart and brain. In five years, robots will replace surgeons, and with it replace human error of judgement. In the process, doctors won’t be able to overcharge.”

Robotic surgery is gaining popularity as it involves minimally invasive surgery. Its enhanced dexterity and precision reduce pain and discomfort, and the patient recovers fast.

Dr Sanjay Gogoi, Director, Urology & Renal Transplant, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurgaon, says, “At present, such procedures are expensive compared to standard laparoscopy and most medical insurance companies do not reimburse robotic procedures. Once these hiccups are overcome, more patients will opt for robotic surgery.”

ROBOTICSD.jpgAgrees Dr Arun Prasad, Sr. Consultant (General and Advanced Laparoscopic Surgery), Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, Delhi: “Just look at the cost of investment. It’s close to `15 crore to set up a machine, in addition to its running cost being `1 lakh per surgery. And even though it assists a surgeon a great deal, the costs borne by the patient and his family are big. Unless hospitals subsidise, its outreach is going to be limited, but its merits cannot be overlooked. Till India doesn’t make any of its own, the cost won’t come down.”

The current generation of surgical robots is not independent machines. They perform tasks based on the surgeons’ inputs, and imitate the surgeon’s movements to operate in difficult-to-reach areas. But how soon will robots be able to do surgical procedures without human intervention? Like the autopilots in aircraft (and recently in cars), robots still require human assistance. Gogoi believes it would take decades for the robot to replace the surgeon.

Echoes Dr Anupama Rajanbabu, Professor, Gynaecologic Oncology, Amrita Institute of Medical Science, Kochi: “At the moment, robots are not functioning independently. They have to follow instructions. But saying they’ll start conducting surgeries altogether is a bit far-fetched. I say this also because the availability of robots is abysmal. In cancer gynaecology, the infrared light helps detect suspicious cancer nodes that we can easily remove. Because of the precise movement of these robots, the surgery goes off very well.”

The technology is not just limited to operation theatres. Luvozo, a start-up founded in the US in 2013, has introduced a “robot concierge” called SAM on hospital floors. It is a ‘tele-presence robot’, which moves on its own, checks on patients and even videoconferences with doctors. Robot receptionists man desks at Belgian hospitals.

On the other hand, the robotic hand has become a life-saver for millions of people who have lost their upper limbs, either due to a birth defect or in an accident. It might bring visions of Cameron’s classic The Terminator, but the robotic hand is one of the most successful creations from Scottish manufacturer Touch Bionics. Named i-limb, the brand defines it as designed for those who want more from their prosthesis. Says Neeraj Saxena, director of P&O International, distributor for Touch Bionics’ products in India, “The i-limb or bionic limb has all the articulated features of the natural hand, and various grips can be selected through the iPhone or any Android phone. However, the availability of functioning in the upper extremity is only 50-60 per cent of the natural hand,” he adds. The i-limb is also pricey, costing between Rs 7 lakh and Rs 25 lakh with high wear and tear.

Advanced robots are available in the agriculture sector too. Unlike humans, robots don’t need elevenses, and they can work for hours endlessly. FarmBot is the first open source farming machine. Similar to 3D printers, its hardware uses linear guides in X, Y, and Z directions allowing various tools such as plows, seed injectors, watering nozzles and sensors, to be precisely used on plants and the soil. From sowing to harvesting, its system is fully automated. FarmBot kits costs $2,900.

The FarmBot is not humanoid. It is Honda’s ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility), which is the leader in the field. A project that started in 1986 as a simple walking robot has evolved into an advanced humanoid that can run, walk on uneven slopes and surfaces, turn smoothly, climb stairs and reach for and grasp objects. ASIMO can also understand and respond to simple voice commands, recognise the face of a select group of individuals and avoid moving obstacles. Pepper, the first humanoid, can recognise principal human emotions and adapt its behaviour accordingly. Its anti-collision system can detect both people and obstacles, thus reducing unexpected collisions. NAO is a personalised robot. You can upgrade its personality and enable it to develop new skills. What is more, NAO can update itself by accessing its Internet site autonomously.

Robots are becoming more than just functional aids. Artist Goshka Macuga created a talking android, which is now on show at the Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin. Based on a zombie in the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Macuga’s creation looks eerily human, bearded, with black hair and bionic arms; it even spouts philosophy.

As robotics capabilities grow with research and their software algorithms become more complex, enabling robots to be more intuitive and independent to assist human beings, will the sci-fi predictions of robotic Armageddon come true? We already bark orders to our phones and the AI in them responds. Where will all this lead? Will renegade robots break free of man’s control and pose a danger to mankind?

When a physicist as renowned as Stephen Hawking warns against AI, the world sits up. From self-driving cars to digital personal assistants such as Siri and Cortana, AI is here to stay. Hawking warned that the advent of AI is the biggest event in human history, it might also be the last. He joined Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak and many other scientists to issue an open letter warning how AI is potentially more dangerous than nuclear weapons.

Which is why researchers at the Brown University, in cooperation with the US Navy, are attempting to create a robot with a moral code. But the challenges touch on the fundamental aspect of morality—human choice. How will a self-driving car choose between hitting someone or crashing into a tree, killing its passenger? Or how will a robot, which detects two injured persons in the rubble of a building collapse, choose the one to be rescued when it has time to save only one? For a start, they have programmed an autonomous robot, which has been instructed not to do anything that would harm itself or others. When instructed by anyone to violate the rule, the robot will not obey. It will also explain why it didn’t. Social psychologists at the university have begun work on a list of words, ideas and rules to create a basic moral vocabulary for the robot’s schematics. Still the question remains, how does a robot make complex choices, when humans themselves are unable to in many dilemmas?

With Ayesha Singh


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