From the exotic world of science fiction writers and the inaccessible secretive research work of Defence and Space, Robots had captured our imaginations and fascinated us for a very long time. Robots and its morphed variants are slowly and steadily entering mainstream and sparking interests in consumers, as a machine and automaton that can become an aid to our daily lives.
The life span of robotics as a research area has been quite long, and there have been mainstream books written on it. The classic one being R.U.R. written in Czech by Karel Capek, where the robots manufactured in a factory are very similar to humans, learn to acquire emotions, eventually battle with humans and then take over the world. However, beyond fiction, the progress has been slow, as compared to the pace at which adoption of PCs, laptops, and now PDAs and smartphones are happening.
This year's edition of CES-2013 has given us a decent glimpse of what is happening, and what is in store. From assisting students with homework, helping autistic people, teledoctor robots, window cleaning robots and the entertainment varieties, the exhibits were a good glimpse of the potential of robotics going ahead. The increased funding received by start-ups in robotics is also an indicator of this potential.
The goal of any work in robotics, as a merger of science and arts, is to mimic the behaviour of living beings, be it an animal's efficient and complex motion, a bird's exotic flight mechanism, or human's capability of vision, speech, and more importantly, derived intelligence. Each of these areas, that nature has perfected over millions of years, are fascinating areas of research that, when combined, provide interesting permutations and combinations for several useful applications.
Like every invention by humans, this area of work is also a double-edged sword. Drones are creating human rights issues in areas torn by warfare. Evolved forms of robots, that resemble humans in shape, appearance and capabilities, could cause displacement of workforce, and potentially lead to social unrests, as it tries to improve the overall productivity of the workforce.
At the same time, robots are now capable of performing precise intrusive surgical procedures, with minimal blood loss and recuperation time. On the sustainable development front, small flexible robots that can wade through water and gas pipelines can help provide us means to optimally conserve resources and prevent wastage. Autonomous robots that can navigate by itself through factories, or go into a nuclear disaster zone or chemical or oil spillage and co-operative robotics where multiple robots can work together in tandem, are throwing up new areas and opportunities for security, surveillance and disaster recovery applications, where human intervention could lead to loss of life.
Robotics as an area of social research, be it education, elderly care assistance or assistance to people with disabilities, is also maturing and giving us hopes that such people could lead more productive and positive lives, aided by that deft touch.
What does the future hold for Robotics then? We are certainly at an interesting point of time where several parallel efforts are reaching maturity very fast. More and more standard hardware and software building blocks and efforts by the Open Source community is surely helping create solution with ease and much cheaper. Application ready platforms are also emerging, on which hobbyists and students can build very interesting solutions. Will our 30 year journey from the bulky desktops, to the portable laptops, to mobiles, PDAs, and now the swanky smartphones transition to a cute Robot that we all will carry around some day?
Well, only time can tell. Bill Gates spoke about "A Robot in every home" in a scientific American article published not so long back. That may not be such a farfetched thought, after all!