Welcome to this Open University
robotics minicourse, which is aimed at anyone who has a general
interest in robots and now wishes to learn more about robotics. We
hope you'll find the course entertaining, informative and worthwhile!
The minicourse concludes with some
Building robots involves the
development of a wide range of skills, including creative thinking,
design, mechanics, electronics and programming - all of which are
highly valued in industry. Your interest in the subject could lead you
into an exciting and fulfilling career at the cutting edge of
You can follow up this minicourse by
taking the Open University's short course T184 Robotics and the
meaning of life: a practical guide to things that think which will
further develop your knowledge and practical skills in robotics. There
is a version of this course offered by some schools. To find out more
about this, see the Open University Young Applicants in Schools
Nowadays, the word robot is
often applied to any device that works automatically or by remote
control, especially a machine (automaton) that can be
programmed to perform tasks normally done by people.
Before the 1960s, robot
usually meant a manlike mechanical device (mechanical man or
humanoid) capable of performing human tasks or behaving in a human
manner. Today robots come in all shapes and sizes, including small
robots made of LEGO, and larger wheeled robots that play robot
football with a full-size ball.
What many robots have in common is
that they perform tasks that are too dull, dirty, delicate or
dangerous for people. Usually, we also expect them to be autonomous,
that is, to work using their own sensors and intelligence, without the
constant need for a human to control them. Looked at this way, a radio
controlled aeroplane is not a robot, nor are the radio controlled
combat robots that appear on television. However, there is no clear
dividing line between fully autonomous robots and human-controlled
machines. For example, the robots that perform space missions on
planets like Mars may get instructions from humans on Earth, but since
it can take about ten minutes for messages to get back and forth, the
robot has to be autonomous during that time.
The word robot was introduced
in 1920 in a play by Karel Capek called R.U.R. , or Rossum's Universal
Robots. Robot comes from the Czech word robota, meaning forced
labour or drudgery. In the play, human-like mechanical creatures
produced in Rossum's factory are docile slaves. Since they are just
machines, the robots are badly treated by humans. One day a misguided
scientist gives them emotions, and the robots revolt, kill nearly all
humans and take over the world. However, because they are unable to
reproduce themselves, the robots are doomed to die. However, the sole
surviving human creates a male and a female robot to perpetuate their
The roots of robotics can be traced
back to Greek mythology and Jewish mysticism. Several myths from
Ancient Greece tell of statues being brought to life. According to
Aristotle, the legendary Greek inventor, Daedalus (whose son Icarus
flew too close to the sun), created animated statues that guarded the
entrance to the Labyrinth in Crete. The Jewish Talmud describes the
making of a golem, a clay model brought to life by the chanting
of magical combinations of letters from the Hebrew alphabet. A similar
idea can be found in medieval alchemy, in which the philosopher's
stone was believed to have a life-giving force. Mary Shelley drew upon
such traditions in her 1818 novel Frankenstein.
The term robotics was coined
in the 1940s by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. In a series of
stories and novels, he imagined a world in which mechanical beings
were mankind's devoted helpmates. They were constrained to obey what
have become known as Asimov's Laws of Robotics:
A robot may not injure a human
being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given
it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the
A robot must protect its own
existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the
First or Second Law.
Asimov’s book of short stories, I,
Robot, investigates the interplay between these laws. In one of
the stories, there is a scandal because a candidate for mayor is
suspected of being a robot – no-one has ever seen him eat, drink, or
However, the mayor
claims he is not a robot, and the story has many twists and turns
before we find out. Is it possible that we would allow robots to
run our lives? After all, if they obey the First Law of Robotics,
they will never harm us. In this respect they could be better than
human politicians! This will not be a practical problem for many
years, but who knows what the future holds?
A prototype industrial robot arm
named Unimate (designed by George Devol and Joseph Engelberger)
was sold to General Motors in 1959. It plucked hot automobile parts
out of a die-casting machine and quenched them in water.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a revolution
in manufacturing as robots replaced humans for many repetitive jobs.
However, these robots were not intelligent by today’s standards.
Usually they were programmed by humans training their movements, and
they had very little decision-making capabilities. There are still
many robots like this in factories today, but the trend is towards
more intelligent general-purpose robots that can do more than just
paint a panel or screw in a bolt.
Space probes hurtling
through the solar system may not seem like robots, but they fully
merit that name by performing programmed tasks over long periods
without direct human supervision. Operating in the vacuum of space and
withstanding exposure to radiation and extremes of temperature, they
explore places not yet accessible to humans.
On Christmas Day
2003, the Beagle 2 mission to Mars attempted to land on the
Martian surface. Had the landing gone smoothly, the robotic shell
would have opened and deployed solar panels to collect
electricity, as well as a ‘PAW’ to collect rock and soil samples
for a small analytic laboratory. The lander also had a ‘mole’ that
would have burrowed into the surface to collect samples for
analysis. Beagle 2 is shown on the right with its inventor,
Professor Colin Pillinger of the Open University.
It is very difficult to give a robot
the ability to perform a wide variety of tasks, move around in
cluttered surroundings, recognise objects in the ‘real world’,
understand normal speech, and think for itself. These are exciting
areas of current research in robotics and artificial intelligence.
For example, the
robot shown here has the problem of deciding where to cross the
river. How can it make this decision? How would you do it? Perhaps
you have come across a similar situation before. Perhaps you could
look it up in a guide book. Perhaps you would reason that B is
better than C because the water is likely to be shallower? Perhaps
you would choose A, because you tried it before. All these ways of
making decisions come very naturally to humans, but they are very
difficult to program into robots.
Another great problem in robotics is
getting them to understand language. This is very important in
problem-solving. For example, the four cards below have a letter on
one side and a number on the other. If a card has a vowel (a, e, i, o,
u) on one side then it has an even number on the other. Which cards do
you have to turn over to see if this is true? Think about your answer,
then point to a card to turn it over.
Now consider the following cards
where the rule is ‘every time I go to Paris I go by plane’. Which
cards have to be turned over to test this? Again, think about your
answer before turning the card over.
The answer to the first question is
that you have to turn over the E to see if it has an even number on
the back and you have to turn over the 7 to check that it does not
have a vowel on the back. In an experiment, only 12% of people got
this second part right (did you?).
The answer to the second question is
much easier. Of course you have to turn over the Paris card to check
that it has the word plane on the back, but now it’s much more obvious
that you have to turn over the train card to make sure it does not
have Paris on the back. In the experiment mentioned above, 60% of
people got the second part right.
These problems are logically the
same, so the experimenters drew the conclusion that the meaning of the
symbols is an important part of problem solving. Since robots have
very poor language capabilities, their ability to use this kind of
reasoning is very limited.
Another of the great problems in
robotics is getting them to ‘see’. Although it is easy to put a camera
on a robot, it is much more difficult to get the robot to understand
what is in an image. Most humans have miraculously good vision. We are
able to resolve great ambiguity in scenes. It has proved much more
difficult to get robots to understand what is in their universe, and
machine vision remains one of the big unsolved problems in robotics
There are other problems in robotics
that make progress slow. For example, your body is covered with skin,
and this contains millions of sensors that allow you to do many
fantastically precise things. For example, try typing at a computer
with gloves on. The lack of touch feedback will make it very
difficult. Also your muscles enable you to have very fine control.
Even if you are rather clumsy, you are probably much better at
manipulating objects than the average robot. Most people would not let
a robot dust their favourite china.
Many futurists believe that robots
will eventually and inevitably become more capable than humans, but
some experts in artificial intelligence assert that machines will
never be able to develop the consciousness and emotions needed for
reasoning and creativity.
Nonetheless, there are already
commercially available robots that can live in our houses and do basic
chores for us. Robots are very good at processing certain kinds of
information, and they are ideally suited to answering the telephone
and being controlled over the Internet.
The International RoboCup Federation
has set itself the challenge of having a team of humanoid robot
football players beat the human world champions by 2050. Can you image
that? It means that robots will have to become as nimble and skilful
as Beckham. It will require the invention of many new materials – for
example, a human soccer player could be badly hurt if it clashed with
a robot made of metal. It will also require an enormous improvement in
machine vision. If you play sports such as football, tennis, or even
snooker, next time you play think about the huge amount of information
that comes through your eyes.
Robotic pets, lawn mowers and vacuum
cleaners are already on the market. Following the success of their
Aibo robot dog, Sony have developed a humanoid entertainment robot
named QRIO. Honda's Asimo welcomes customers to their showrooms in
Japan. Toshiba have built a robot that can play volleyball. Fujitsu's
HOAP-2 can perform Japanese Sumo wrestling stances, as well as moves
from the Chinese martial art taijiquan.
Rapid advances are being made in
robotic control systems, artificial intelligence, neural networks, and
in the miniaturisation, sophistication and reliability of electronic
circuitry, sensors and actuators. These are all contributing to a
steady increase in the capabilities of robots. Robots currently under
development may become widely used in the food, clothing, nuclear and
offshore industries, healthcare, farming, transportation, mining and
This is a popular science fiction
theme, and the answer depends on whether robots will ever attain
consciousness and emotions. In stories like 2001: A Space Odyssey
and Terminator, humans always find a way to outwit intelligent
machines that try to take over control. That's fiction, however, and
fact is often stranger than fiction!
The suggestion that robots will take
over because they might become more intelligent than humans overlooks
one critical fact: the people who have power in human societies are
usually not the most intelligent in the obvious, intellectual way.
They have different kinds of ‘human intelligence’, including the
ability to understand other people, and to influence their behaviour.
The sensible answer to the question
as to whether robots will take over is that they probably won’t in the
near future. There are many reasons for this. The first is that the
robots of today have puny brains compared to humans, and they do not
have the ability to organise in the same way as humans. Our societies
are very complex and allow us to achieve many very advanced things. It
is unlikely that robots could overtake us in the near future. Even so,
it is something that we should keep an eye on, since all scientists
have a responsibility not to do things that damage society.
However, for the most part, robots
play a very positive role in our societies, and we can expect them to
be used in many ways that make life better for us all.
If you would like to, why not try out
the quiz associated with this minicourse? Go to quiz now.
Alternatively, if this minicourse has
taken your interest, why not look at the introductory 10 point credit
course, T184 - Robotics and the Meaning of Life