Week 8: Robots

This week the topic that most interested me was robotics. Like many of the things we have studied during the course, robots, once an idea exclusive to the arts and cinema, are now becoming commonplace. Since the introduction of the robot, its definition has greatly changed. As discussed in the textbook, the word robot comes from the Czech word robota that means “obligatory work or servitude.” Robots were initially thought to be artificial humanoids, or human-like beings, created to perform human functions as tools or forms of “cheap-labor.” Webster defines a robot as “an automatic device that performs functions normally ascribed to humans, or as a machine in the form of a human.” A more modern definition of a robot given by the Robot Institute of America defines robots as “programmable, multifunctional manipulators designed to move material parts, tools, or specialized devices through variable programmed motions or for the performance of a variety of tasks.” Note that this definition eliminates the requirement that robots take human form. We encounter robots in all shapes and forms that carry out a variety of functions that aid in many different areas of life including manufacturing and entertainment.

Barry Brian Werger is the director and coordinator of Ullanta Performance Robotics, which is robot performance group that creates scripted performances that casts robots as performers. The robot performers incorporate autonomous behavior and the result is that each performance is slightly different every time. The following quote describes the goals of these projects as described by Werger.

 “Distributed, multi-agent, social robotics aims to generate more interesting robotic behavior through the design and study of systems involving numerous agents. Emotional robotics seeks to understand how emotion influences both individual and social behavior. Artistically, I see performance robotics as the use of these new technologies and concepts to create new experiences in theater – and new challenges for scriptwriters and directors. As a roboticist, I see public performance of aesthetically designed pieces to be a challenging test-bed for the abovementioned research areas. Robotic performance pieces, which have to appeal to audiences and take place at scheduled times, demand a standard of robustness, adaptivity, and interaction that few laboratory experiments display.”

Below is a video clips of one of their performances called “Self-Made Man and the Moon,” based on the poem of the same name by Paul Genga.

The works focus on the emotional robotics explores the idea that robots are no longer passive slaves but rather intelligent sensing communicating entities. The increasing prominence of these machines raises many cultural and moral questions. For example what is the limit of human abilities to create autonomous machines? And what are the dangers in creating them? Although these questions may not be fully answered, something is clear. Robots are, as Wilson puts it, “quintessential creatures of our time.” Advancement in these fields is inevitable as there is an unrelenting desire to push technology as far as possible and the world of robotics has no where to go but forward. Something that I would like to emphasize is that as we become more technologically advanced in these fields there is the notion that advancement equals progress. However as we become more reliant on machines and robots, there is a decline in the human necessity that many would argue is actually the opposite of progress. From this an intense debate arises around the question of whether advancements in robotics are overall advantageous or detrimental to human life. In class we discussed a new robotic tool used in surgery the exemplifies this dilemma. The following link and video provides more information on this new technology.


Essentially the system involves a robotic arm that is controlled by a doctor via a computer program that can be used in precision surgery. While there are obvious advantages to this type of technology, my concern lies in what this technology means for humanity. Sure the fields of robotics and machinery have made things like food production, waste management and other large-scale industries far easier. However, this break through technology exemplifies the great potential that robotics proposes in fields not only in mass production but areas as specialized as surgery and medicine. So where does that leave us? With this field exponentially expanding and numerous projects and work being done to investigate things like emotional robotics and even the creation of autonomous humanoids, what repercussions will this have on the human necessity and the future of human civilizations socially and even economically? If robots can replace humans in all areas of business and industry what jobs would be left ? Would there be a decrease in the need for education if we can just build and design machines to do specialized jobs for us? Would we get lazy as a species becoming so reliant on technology that we can no longer function without it? In a lot of way this is already happening. For example it only takes but one look around any public space to see that virtually everyone relies on cell phones to get through basic everyday routines, when 50 years ago hardly anyone had one. I again bring up the notion of progress. Can this be considered progress? What exactly defines progress? Is progress an illusion? Are we inadvertently dooming ourselves to a future in which we as human beings will be redundant? At what point do we become too reliant on technology? To end this post I offer a link to debate on this topic that presents different arguments regarding this question.


-Lauren Simons


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