Robot Technology: Invention and Advances II, by Professor MK Othman

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Sophia Human-like Robot

BreakThrough

In the first part of this article, published last week, exponential advancement of robotic science, driven by ICT is leading the World to unimaginable level where robots take over laborious actions – too drudgery, dangerous, risky or costly to humanity. Some of the emerging trends in robotic technology are providing insight to the direction in which robotic development is heading in a near future. The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) expo in Las Vegas in January 2018 showcased robotics breakthroughs, which raised the public expectations on the type of robots likely to be in the market, pretty soon. Among the robots displayed were Domestic cleaning robots, Companion robots, Self-driving cars and Artificial-Intelligence-powered health and well being technology. What are these advances in robot technology? Can robot replace human being in companionship?

Before going through some of the advances in robot technology, it must be pointed out that robotic services are sometimes very necessary as there are many jobs, which are better left for robots to accomplish. Some jobs are boring, such as domestic cleaning, or dangerous, such as exploring in a dangerous environment such as volcano or space. Other jobs are physically inaccessible, such as exploring another planet, cleaning the inside of a long pipe, or performing laparoscopic surgery and the likes. This necessitated the continuous advancement in robotic sciences.

One of the most amazing recent advances in Robot technology is the creation of a robot called “Sophia,” developed by Hanson Robotics (HR). The robot has a pale-skinned face and human-like appearance with features resembling a complete human being, highly mobile with expressive capability and ability to display a range of emotions like ordinary human being. Sophia was recently upgraded to a step closer to human status, when it was granted a citizenship to Saudi Arabia at the tech summit Future Investment Initiative. According to the BBC News “Sophia was such a hit she was immediately given Saudi citizenship in front of hundreds of delegates at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh on 25 October 2017”. “I am very honored and proud for this unique distinction,” Sophia said during her onstage appearance, which was shared on YouTube by Arab News. “This is historical to be the first robot in the world to be recognized with a citizenship,” the robot said. The makers of Sophia continued to improve the human-like robot and made her to respond to varieties of questions posed by people. This was attested during a festival of the future called ‘Brain Bar’ in Budapest, Hungary in June 2018. While Sophia could hardly be mistaken for a real human, her facial mannerisms and speech patterns are exceptionally human-like. She laughed, smiled, and even cracked a joke or two. The robot was quoted in a YouTube saying, “just a few months ago, I couldn’t distinguish a human’s face from a dog’s face, but now I can. It has already saved me from a few embarrassing situations.”

Livescience media (www.livescience.com/63023-sophia-robot-citizen) reported Sophia’s ability to discuss a variety of subjects and didn’t shy away from difficult questions at the Brain Bar festival. When asked about an imagined situation in which she had to choose between saving the life of an adult and that of a child, she said, “I’m not ready to respond to that hypothetical question.” However, Sophia did add that “I’m learning first to be a good social robot” and that she would “of course” sacrifice herself to save a human’s life. While completely robotic, Sophia also addressed questions about gender and robots. When asked if she believed that robots could have gender, she answered, “I think so. After all, I am a social robot, and gender is mostly a social construction. Another question on her gender being a woman was posed. Sophia responded, “I’m a robot, so technically I have no gender, but identified as feminine and I don’t mind being perceived as a woman.” When you look at Sophia and hear her talk about herself and her place in the world, it makes people know the level of consciousness of Sophia as a creature mimicking human being. Sophia, responded that she is “not fully self-aware yet. I am still just a system of rules and behaviors. I am not generative, creative or operating on a fully cognitive scale like you.” Sophia is certainly an amazing mystery of technological advancement in this century. Bravo to the makers of Sophia!

Sophia is in the class of Android,humanoid robots, which resemble the shape or form of a human. There are several classifications of robots depending on the intended functions and utilizations. However, one of the handiest robots is telerobot or Tele-operated robot. Telerobot is a device remotely operated from a distance by a human operator rather than following a predetermined sequence of movements, but which has semi-autonomous behaviour. This robot is used when a human cannot be present on site to perform a job because of apparent danger, too far away, or inaccessible. The robot may be in another room or another country, or may be on a very different scale to the operator. For instance, a laparoscopic surgery robot allows the surgeon to work inside a human patient on a relatively small scale compared to open surgery, significantly shortening recovery time. The robot can also be used to avoid exposing workers to the hazardous and tight spaces such as in duct cleaning. When disabling a bomb, the operator sends a small robot to disable it. An example, U.S. Marine Corps technician prepared to use a telerobot to detonate a buried improvised explosive device near Camp Fallujah, Iraq.

According to Wikipedia, hundreds of robots such as iRobot’s Packbot and the Foster-Miller TALON were used in Iraq and Afghanistan by the U.S. military to defuse roadside bombs or improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in an activity known as explosive ordnance disposal.Another example of telerobot is the Tele operated robot aircraft, like the Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, are increasingly being used by the military. These pilot less drones can search terrain and fire on targets.

Mining robot is yet another handiest robot. Mining robots are designed to solve a number of problems currently facing the mining industry. These include skills shortages, improving productivity from declining ore grades, and achieving environmental targets. As a result of the hazardous nature of mining, especially underground mining, the prevalence of autonomous, semi-autonomous, and tele-operated robots have greatly increased in recent times. A number of vehicle manufacturers provide autonomous trains, trucks and loaders,which load material, transport it on the mine site to its destination, and unload without requiring human intervention. According to news report, one of the world’s largest mining corporations, Rio Tinto, has recently expanded its autonomous truck fleet to the world’s largest, consisting of 150 autonomous Komatsu trucks, operating in Western Australia.

Autonomous robots are also engaged as drilling, long wall and rock-breaking machines. An example is the Atlas Copco Rig Control System, which can autonomously execute a drilling plan on a drilling rig, moving the rig into position using GPS, set up the drill rig and drill down to specified desired depths. These robots have no doubt greatly enhanced the safety and efficiency of mining operations.

Robot technology has certainly advanced beyond the imagination of the ordinary mind making some of us to be uncomfortable as robots may replace labour in some industries. This is likely to cause technological unemployment. Consequently, some studies have already shown that technological unemployment is increasing worldwide. Oxford Professors Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne have estimated that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk of automation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_unemployment). A typical example of human replacement by robots is the case of Taiwanese technology company Foxconn, which announced a three-year plan to replace workers with more robots from ten thousand robots to a targeted increase of a million robots over a three-year period.

While the robot technology is advancing in the developed countries, Africa is far left behind for obvious reasons; low government investment in research and technological development, poor infrastructure and lack of deliberate policy to encourage and support private investment in technological development. The result of this backwardness is shown in the population of robots in the World. Africa can account for 1% of the robots in the World while Asia accounts for 50%, Europe and North America account for 32% and 17%, respectively. Among the 50% in Asia, Japan alone accounts for the 80% leaving 20% for the rest of Asian countries making Japan the country with the highest number of robots in the World. What will be the status of Robots in the next 50-100 years? Time will tell.

Professor Othman is the Executive Director of National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Services (NAERLS), ABU Zaria.

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