The idea of a machine that does our work for us has been part of the human imagination for thousands of years. In fact, the word “robot” comes from the slavic robota, which means a forced laborer of a feudal system. Naturally, we see them as working for us, but what would happen if they had intelligence equivalent to that of a human? Sounds like a typical sci-fi situation, but is that level of intelligence even possible in a machine?
On the nature of possibility, very few people are capable of making accurate assessments of what will come to be. It is usually those who are gifted with a scientific or mechanical mind who can predict where the future will lead, and thus, the future is often built on imagination. Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Ignaz Semmelweis, and so many more, were all thinkers whose ideas were rejected in their lifetime, but who would be proven correct by history, and they have all influenced the course of humanity. So the question is: whose imagination has influenced the destiny of robotics?
Some of the first types of robots were not mostly independent in the way artificial intelligence could be, but rather more like clocks run by intricate machinery and wheelwork; they were fittingly called automata. They would automate traps, calculations, tasks, or even act as pure entertainment, like the famous duck by Jacques de Vaucanson, which you would feed seeds and then watch as it excretes.
The development of robots in the way we know them began in the 19th century with the electrical age and remote controlled systems. Nikola Tesla and Archibald Low, for example, designed wireless guided torpedoes and rockets, a further step in the development of robotics before reaching a point where the goal was to mimic the functionality of a human being. William Grey Walter wanted to show how a simple brain system could lead to many complex behaviors, and it’s with this line of thinking that robotic evolution began to revolutionize the assembly line. The programmable robotic arm would be foundational to modern types of production.
The robots of today do everything from assembling and painting most of your car, putting together your computer parts, and will soon be driving your car, maybe even cooking your dinner. The question on everyone’s mind is if these changes are going to actually take place, and when that would happen. People have been speculating about advances in technology since recorded history but as we’ve seen, no one — or very few — are capable of predicting the outcomes. If anything, people are likely to underestimate the time it takes for a technology to catch on, or, the technology wasn’t even on their radar until everybody had one in their pocket.
So who knows? We feel like we’re on the cusp of many technologies such as an end to factory work, an end to cars with drivers, and so on. How far will this technology take us? How long will it take before we can have a meaningful conversation with a robot about problem solving, or about dealing with your ex-girlfriend/boyfriend? It may be impossible to say, but then again, maybe we’ll design a robot to deal with making those predictions for us.