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Robot Technology

Roots of Robotics Technology

The paper by Albus (see app. B, item 2) surveys the state of robotics technology. Robots have a dual technological ancestry that has an important effect on discussions about what they are, what they can do, and how they are likely to develop. The two an- cestral lines are: 1) industrial engineering automation technology, a discipline that stretches historically over a century; and 2) computer science and artificial intelligence technology that is only a few decades old. Ideas about the nature of robots differ according to the importance given to these two technological roots.

Most modern industrial robots are exten- sions of automated assembly-line technol- ogy. This form of automation has not histori- cally depended on computers, although mi- croelectronics provides a powerful new tool for extending its capabilities. In this view modern industrial robots are closely related to numerically controlled machine tools.

In the view of some computer science re- searchers, robotics as a technology that will have significant social impact is still in its in- fancy. They estimate that, given sufficient research support, they could produce a flexi- ble, intelligent robot for the market within this decade. A robot of this type will be able to move freely about an unstructured envi- ronment, and perform a wide variety of tasks on command with minimal reprogramming time.

This view stresses the need for continuing basic research in computer science related to robotics, particularly in “artificial intelli- gence. ” Robots are seen as “stand-alone,” reprogramable devices, capable of perform- ing many tasks other than large-scale assem- bly line applications, for example, small- scale batch manufacturing, mining, or equip- ment repair.

From such a perspective, robotics is already approaching the state of a mature technology. Over the next decade, the most important impacts of robotics on the econ- omy and work force cannot be considered separately from the impacts of industrial automation in general.

On the other hand, modern computer tech- nology may provide future robots with new “intelligent” capabilities such as visual and tactile perception, mobility, or understand- ing instructions given in a high-level, natural language, such as “Assemble that pump!” The commercial availability of such capabil- ities may be one or two decades away.

Which of these views is most pertinent in terms of current policy issues will depend, in part, on whether such an “intelligent” robot would be economically feasible in the near future and whether it would meet a signifi- cant need in the industrial sector. It seems likely, in fact, that both types of robotics technology will eventually become impor- tant, but that their economic and social im- pacts will differ to the extent that they are used for different purposes in different en- vironments. Furthermore, the time scale for widespread adoption will be significantly later for the “intelligent” machines.


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