Tag Archives: robotics

Robots! Robots! Robots! Part 3: Robots, cyborgs, posthumans

In this final part I want to investigate one final common assumption-that there is a fundamental difference between the artificial robot and the natural human being. In reality the lines between the biological and the machinic have been blurred for some time, and any future scenario must acknowledge that rather than the quaint sci-fi B-movie vision of a world of easily distinguishable humans and robots, we must also account for the possibility of cyborgian hybrids of flesh and technology. This corporeal transformation, coupled with the societal impacts of robotics can be seen as paving the way for an effectively posthuman future.

Which, if you’ve never read my blog before, I think sounds brilliant fun. Having written  a fair bit about posthumanism on this blog  I’m not going to try and sum it up here. Instead, let’s just keep that background knowledge in mind while considering some concrete examples of the cyborg in action, because just like robots cyborgs are creatures of social fact as much as science-fiction.

Starting small, how about some remote controlled insects?

Or this monkey controlling a prosthetic arm with its own brain. By the way, if you’ve been reading these posts and quietly worrying about the robot uprising, I hope you will now include roving armies of techno-monkeys and swarms of insectobots into your paranoid and pessimistic fantasies. Continue reading

Robots! Robots! Robots! Part 2: Let the machines do the work

Kneel, puny humans, before the might of Noodle-Bot!

Kneel, puny humans, before the might of Noodle-Bot!

After a brief overview of robots and their form and history in Part One, this post consider the place of robots in industrial economies.  In many respects, the history of the robot is inextricably linked to questions of work and labour. The first use of the word robot was in RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a 1920 play by the Cheokslavkian Karel Capek . As Dennis G. Jerz points out, “the Czech word robota means “drudgery” or “servitude”; a robotnik is a peasant or serf.” This link between the robot as worker or labourer is also found in Fritz Lang’s  Metropolis (1927) in which the robot Maria serves as a catalyst for a proletariat revolution. The connection between machine and wage-slave is even implicit in Marx and Engel’s 1848 Communist manifesto in which they warn that, “owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine“. There remains the possibility that industrial robots might one day gain sentience in which case the robot uprising will be less like The Terminator and more like Battleship Potemkin.

Setting the question of robots developing class-consciousness aside (its difficult, I know, but let’s try) we first need a better understanding of just how common the use of industrial robots has become.While we might still be startled to see a robot trundling down the street it is easy to forget the robots are everywhere, often out of sight, whirring away feverishly in factories and warehouses. As the roboticist and human friend Dr Tom Larkworthy once astutely noted, “most robots are just arms“.

A few decades ago this was pretty whizz-bang stuff, as in Hugh Hudson’s iconic ‘Hand Built by Robots‘ advert for the Fiat Strada in 1979:

What once inspired awe and fascination is now taken for granted, if considered at all, but since Hudson’s hymn to the workerless factory the use of industrial robots has increased significantly. In October 2000, the UN estimated there to be 742, 500 industrial robots in use; more than half of which were being used in Japan. By 2011, According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) study World Robotics 2012, there were at least 1,153,000 operational industrial robots and  estimated to reach 1,575,000 by the end of 2015. The annual turnover for robot systems was estimated to be US$25.5 billion in 2011.  (thanks wikipedia!) Continue reading

Robots! Robots! Robots! Part 1

For many humans, perhaps most, the term ‘robot’ brings to mind images from popular culture; a C-3PO, maybe, or, according to your age, Metal Mickey (see video above) or Robby the Robot . Den of Geek has an entertaining Top 50  Robots and AI Computers in the movies if you need more choices. One by-product of this reliance on fiction to give us our visions of robotics is that many people forget that robots are, you know, REAL. Some anecdotal evidence: I once introduced one freind to another by pointing out that he built robots. The first friend expressed disbelief, stating her conviction that robots were the stuff of science-fiction, and the presence of a living, breathing roboticist before her would not dissuade her of that belief.

This is not an usual assumption. It’s easy to forget that we live in the 21st century, or, as I like to call it, THE FUTURE! Truth is, robots are everywhere nowadays, and their presence is only going to increase. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but in order to understand the rise of the machines and what it means for the human race, we first need to address some common assumptions about robots. As such, this here Part One of Robots! Robots! Robots! sets out to demonstrate that 1) robots are not from the future but  have been with us since the Ancients; 2) contrary to film and television’s default depiction, most robots do not look like humans; and 3) robots are not going to kill us all (but humans using robots might do). Part Two discusses the social and economic implications of our robot world, while Part Three investigates the more radical Post/Human possibilities.

Let’s get started… Continue reading