Hollywood has always thrived on a staple diet of science-fiction, creating stars like R2-D2 (Star Wars), RoboCop, and T-800 (Terminator). In movies like Bicentennial Man, Edward Scissorhands, and Wall-E, we have seen the possibility of robots becoming emotional, thinking beings. With the ongoing developments in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) realm, all these possibilities might not appear far-fetched after all.
Moving beyond human-like robots, there is an entire breed of robots powering the manufacturing assembly lines. These robots often resemble a giant human arm lifting heavy loads or carrying out precision tooling jobs. They work tirelessly and offer a higher degree of proficiency in accomplishing their tasks as long as they are properly maintained.
In this article, we will be covering major developments in the field of robotics to learn how it has evolved over the years.
The idea of mechanized tools mimicking human actions drove several steampunk-related literary works in the 19th century. However, it was only in 1921 when Czech writer Karel Capek coined the term "robot" and made the concept highly popular. It took 18 years for this concept to transition from fiction to reality when Elektro – a 120 Kg humanoid robot – was showcased at New York World’s Fair in 1939.
In 1942, Isaac Asimov, a science fiction writer, introduced ‘The Three Laws of Robotics’ in his short story Runaround. The laws, adding a new dimension to AI-related discourse raised questions about developing ethical boundaries for robots. But concerns about robots turning against humans still seem far-fetched at that time.
In 1951, Marvin Minsky created the world’s first artificial neural network that simulated a rat which could navigate and find its way in a maze. The neurocomputer named SNARC (Stochastic Neural Analog Reinforcement Computer) used Hebbian learning to replicate the behavior of a rat in a maze searching for food.
In 1954, George Devol filed for a patent for the world’s first digitally operated programmable robot that could be used by manufacturing industries. However, it took him seven more years to develop Unimate, which was installed by GM in 1961 in one of its factories. Unimate lifted and stacked hot pieces of metal on an assembly line.
In 1981, NEC introduced SCARA (Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arms), a Robotics standard, which is now commonly used in the electronics industry. SCARA robots are capable of working accurately at faster speeds. Manufacturing companies use these robots for assembly, palletization, and machine loading.
Robots are already making a big impact in manufacturing industries around the globe. A report by the International Federation of Robotics estimates that the market for industrial robotics is growing at a CAGR of 13%, and there will be around 2.6 million robots working across different industries by 2019. The report also states that China will drive the growth of industrial robots, accounting for up to 40% of the worldwide sales of such robots by 2019. Apart from manufacturing, there are numerous industrial use cases, from building construction to cleaning up nuclear disaster sites.
Self-driving vehicles are the future of transportation in urban cities. Major car manufacturers such as Tesla has invested billions of dollars in driverless cars. Such cars can provide a huge cost advantage to ride-hailing firms like Uber and Didi. According to an estimate by analysts at UBS, ride-hailing services today cost on average $2.50 a mile. Driverless cars could reduce this cost to only $0.70 a mile. UBS also predicts that by 2035, urban car ownership will fall by 70% and most people will use autonomous taxis for commuting.
Alibaba Cloud has also invested in the development of self-driving cars. Cainiao Network, which handles logistics for Alibaba’s e-commerce business, is evaluating the deployment of self-driving trucks. Alibaba Group and Foxconn Technology recently also invested in an internet-connected, electric car startup.
Still, the likes of Elon Musk have rekindled the ethics debate in recent times. Developing ethical guidelines for robots is important. Ethical problems, such as "The Trolley Problem" remain challenging for AI developers. Self-driving cars, in case of an unavoidable accident, would have to choose between saving passengers or saving pedestrians on the road. Smart machines of tomorrow would need a standard, reliable approach to choosing actions that are ethically correct.
Recent development in AI has made it possible to extend the field of robotics beyond traditional physical systems. Many AI industry giants such as Alibaba Cloud has invested heavily on so-called "intelligent systems". Typical applications of such systems include smart cities and aviation systems.
Analysts view Alibaba Cloud’s investments in line with the larger vision for smart cities. Alibaba Cloud has developed ET Brain, a suite of AI and Big Data technologies for different industrial and social applications. One of the use cases of ET Brain involves management of traffic lights via intelligent systems that use street cameras and a range of sensors to reduce traffic congestion in cities. Combine this technology with self-driving cars, and traffic accidents can be a thing of the past.
Apart from smart cities, the ET Brain platform also supports numerous medical, industrial, financial, and environmental applications. Numerous enterprises and government bodies are working with Alibaba Cloud to implement AI- and Robotics-based solutions. The developments are crucial as China aims to create $150 billion AI industry by 2030.
With the advancements in AI and Robotics, it is not far when robots and intelligent systems will completely overtake humans in the entire business life-cycle, starting from planning stages to delivery and after-sales.
In the future, robots along with other AI-powered systems will automate most of the routine works currently carried out by humans. According to a McKinsey report, one-third of the US workers would be unemployed by 2030 due to automation. However, experts believe that these transitionary trends would create occupation shifts in the coming years and economies like China would benefit from it in the long term.
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