Robotics Today: We are in a Stage that Matter

The robotics revolution has arrived.

If you define yourself part of the ordinary crew of modern society it is STILL normal that you do not met a robot. No worries, you don’t need to wait a lot to change this.

For the sake of clarity I also need to point out that the drone you just buy online to entertain yourself during this the past and current Lock-down is considered a robot. In fact, a drone is a flying robot that can be remotely controlled (I mean advanced models can fly autonomously, but this is another topic!), as sensors and GPS do the magic. I must admit that during my adolescence, I entertained myself more as a bookworm instead of being a gamer and an authentic nerd regarding Sci-fi, and obsessive Star wars fan. But something did affect me, in a sort of diagonal effect of the massive idea of how a robot could (or should) looks like! I seriously expected it would look and act human, like C-3PO from Star Wars.

Well, my actual experience in the field introduced me to a new reality: our real robots, set up in factories and research centers – on an international level – are very different. Today millions of robots gained the title of sophisticated industrial machines able to bolt, weld, paint, and do other repetitive, assembly-line tasks. The technology now at our ease disposal is enabling us to carefully choose them. One first thing to clarify is mainly which part of the business have to be completely or just partially automatized. So, we can see them in a fence or being more closer to us if they enable a responsive collaboration. Their adoption depends to the possibility to ease repetitive and mostly monotonous routines.

Before the current revolution that is giving them something more than a simple actor role, Robots had a nice part in our common imaginary since the beginning of the twentieth century. Just think on how (mostly) American authors introduced them through novels. If we read today the pages of the literary masterpiece known as ‘The Wizard of Oz’, published more than a century ago by Lyman Frank Baum, the protagonists that comes to mind after the nice, smart, sweet protagonist Dorothy (not surprised she become an American idol) and the tireless Scarecrow is the Tin Man. Well, think about that, he is nothing more than a robot.

Which other “thing” could he be?

In him you can see, albeit in a still caricatured form and a bit rough one, a marked anthropomorphism visible today in any humanoid robot. He communicates with others showing a lucid and emotionless intelligence that is often seen as a characteristic of robots in science fiction films. I mean, you must not be a genius to infer that his character demonstrates the popular idea, translated by the director, of a robot unstoppable efficiency: its sharp & structural characteristic.

Tin Woodman, also known as the Tin Man or—mistakenly—the “Tin Woodsman,” as a character in the fictional Land of Oz created by L. Frank Baum. Baum’s Tin Woodman first appeared in his classic 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and reappeared in many subsequent depiction on stage and screen.

The Tin Man – the human turned into a machine – was a common feature in political cartoons and many advertisements at the beginning of the new era of the twentieth century. A political interpretation can easily depict the Tin Man as a worker, dehumanized by the running era of massive industrialization. The worker that slowing, is losing its natural body and need to replace the missing pieces with aseptic metal. No hearth is needed to move, even if the movements are limited and require the help of his people in the surroundings when he runs out of oil. Such as farmers could be, as an example, represented by the figure of the Scarecrow. This alliance is a grant of a mutual survival. Both know that.

Of course, one could say that the Tin Man is just a theatrical adaptation of the industrial phenomenon happening in USA. I mean, it cannot be compared to the very sophisticated robots produced by the U.S. Robots & Mechanical Men Corporation, which Isaac Asimov describes five decades later, in 1950, in his well-known anthology of short stories ‘I, robot’. The American director, Alex Proyas made also a film about it, in 2004.

We have to admit that the attraction of this type of technology is strong, especially if we want to deal with something new and never faced before. Let’s think, for example, of an android, built following the knowledge and techniques of a rather young and very successful science, genetic engineering, making giant steps with a precise aim: making refined “machines” indistinguishable from us, human beings in the flesh, neuronal circuits, tendons and bones.

Nowadays the debate is live, and its scenario fascinating; somehow surprising.

I must admit it just reminds me the replicants of the Nexus 6 and following series, produced by the Tyrell Corporation and described by the majestic writer Philip K. Dick in the novel that forms the background to Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, Blade Runner.  Many of you will have seen it in its first release in 1982. I just discovered it afterwards and beg to amend for that.

A blade runner must pursue and terminate four replicants who stole a ship in space, and have returned to Earth to find their creator.

The simple act to consider these replicants advanced machines is reductive! They are completely equal to us, human beings. Perhaps they could be even considered “superior” to mankind (no offense, OK!) because of their characteristics of strength, agility, resistance and intelligence. What is different in them is a precise presence of an emotional response that we expect to find in a human being grown without traumas or lack of basic empathetic education. So, we could say that they not only have a heart, but they look very different from Baum’s Tin Man!

We do notice even something else, though: the existence of these creatures is not completely autonomous. Their designer holds the fate of their future; choosing a programmed death for them takes just seconds, erasing all their memories, and making them like tears in the rain is effective as just a heartbeat could be. If this sounds absurd, I agree with you. Just consider all the effort dedicated from the design perspective, to make their impressive complexity beautiful and attracting on a first glance! I mean they are beautiful creatures. All this work done to let people have no doubts, questions or second thoughts on their nature (or their technology?) putted apart. What a shame!

The vision and thought that linger on these scenes makes us fascinated and surprised, in some way, by the twists and turns of this bionic nature. One could be the reason: today we are referring to a knowledge of ‘artificial life and intelligence’ that does not even remotely resemble those described in the fantastic literature that fills the shelves of our youth library, or our image as fans and witnesses of the success of the Tin Man adventures in the Oz land.

Today robots are among us.

If you don’t believe me, just ask our mutual friend Google typing somethings that tickle your mind and his algorithm will do the magic without asking you additional info/inputs. In less than one second you have personalized, selected, attracting articles that go even beyond what you have originally expected.

Robots have their place in our home as well. Just thing on the banal ones that have worked so well, right from the start of their career, populating the shelves of Media Mark and Saturn in the latest years: yes, I’m talking about the suckers that don’t suck at their job. You know what I mean.

They are the domestic robots that make sure we don’t have crumbs, pet hairs or dust on our home floor, h24, making our life wonderful after a long, intense, day of work. Probably they have still an evergreen popularity on the upper pyramid of Christmas gift ideas. I bet that the second place is detained by ‘robot chefs’ who have been adopted in many European homes. I need one to become better do my weekend bread laboratory! I guess that the aspect that is mostly appreciated is the easy support given to wannabe master chefs (or bakers that don’t want to suck).

Theoretically, just a a few weeks can enable a metamorphosis to be able to cook all kinds of delicacies with various “demanding” ingredients. Of course, don’t take me wrong, as I am not yet part of this circle, but who knows maybe things will change after this Christmas 2020…

Just joking, BUT think about the increased time we now spend at home cooking and do experimental things in our kitchen as we could do in a chemistry lab. We have a diverse attention and glance on things. New perspectives are part of us.

In this regard, I pay much more attention to the life and “health” of my digital device systems such as smartphone, laptops and the Tablets I have at home, on my desk, in my bag and in the different corners of the apartment where I try to organise my new daily routine due to this COVID-19 pandemic. At least, protect them against unwanted viruses, consumption risks and bad behaviour is easy.

Another robotics technology that I would like to cite is the one represented by Nano-robots inspired by our biological world and able to perform movements of extreme precision. At the moment we have extraordinary robotic machines capable of performing first aid services to contain the emergency in case of fires, floods, earthquakes, shipwrecks and pandemics! Robots that help our surgeons to better assist the patient in the “operating theater” before and during the performance itself. Robot structures that we can wear, almost comfortably, to have special features: for example a new form of strength that our body and muscles are no longer able to guarantee. Be aware, this is not only a trend of or exciting technological era, as it is also a concrete necessity for some of us. Think of those who have suffered serious accidents or amputations and do not want to give up seeing any limits in their body activities. Today prosthetic structures guarantee the right to have a full life; despite everything.  I think it is also a kind of cool to learn how to observe and consider our-self and maybe who knows, parents, friends and neighbor in a bionic guise.

Our eyes have recently become sensitive to this, especially since intelligent machines have been living with us for about ten years now. Not everyone around us has (or rather, want to) pay attention to technological advancements. As mentioned before, the information capable of presenting the current scene and developments of the current technological revolution is right in front of our eyes or the news that our browsers suggest; whether we like it or not.

We see, especially in China and America, worker robots replacing millions of men every year to perform repetitive tasks quickly, efficiently and economically.  The employer saves on additional costs related to the assembly line and the worker can devote himself to other tasks that require a different attention and qualification. Today, robotics has become an autonomous discipline, that not operate in a full isolation. Think of the many points of contact with engineering and electronics. It is, in fact, a complex field of research and scientific innovation that is expanding rapidly worldwide. 

It’s no wonder that our daily safety and well-being depends to a large extent on its considerably expanding trends: drones operating within the astounding possibilities of the 5G network can constantly check the health status of extended lands and forests that require continuous monitoring. Growing divisions of start-ups and companies in the sector are working on prototypes of drones, and another form of futuristic “vigilantes” designed to guarantee a general safety in urban centers. We have now also military robots “trained” to defuse bombs, automata used in the production of renewable energy, hi-tech garbage collectors who become responsible for recycling and avoid our direct contact with poisoning waste substances, electronic exoskeletons and intelligent prostheses thanks to which victims of road accidents do not need to feel and see themselves as disabled as they can walk or take – again – autonomously their morning Coffee mug in the hands.

Use your​ imagination: Sky is not the limit. Any form of event that require a sort of image control is profiting from drones. Just think about concerts, weddings, the world of cinematography such as filming and nature documentaries. Not to mention the military use if drones in rural and remote areas.

We are not done. Not yet.

The new scenario here on Earth radiates its magical effects into space. For once, the opposite is true.

This is for obvious reasons as there are jobs that WE WANT TO GIVE UP completely to our robots. Since the 1960s, dozens of probes have been sent around the red planet to collect data, sending us precious information and answers about the past, present and future of the red planet’s evolution. Today five robotic probes are orbiting Mars, six considering ExoMars – the European mission that is orbiting now around the Red Planet. Among rovers, landers and various instruments capable of tracing the future of high technology, our species has guaranteed a peaceful invasion of its technologies over the vast and intriguing Martian lands. A story that took just 50 years to tell itself impressing everyone!

If the idea of setting out to explore the Solar System by asking for lift-off from a passing asteroid (as the Rosetta spacecraft shows us!) may seem like a span in the air, perhaps you should read or watch the statements made by Elon Musk at the 2017 International Astronautical Congress. I don’t need to introduce you Musk, even if he is the creator of the well-known PayPal we’re using almost everyday, an eccentric billionaire that gave a unique name to his newborn attracting the media attention on this topic as anyone before and the CEO of SpaceX – the aerospace company that just a few days ago demonstrated its new Falcon 9 mission as nominated NASA prime contractor – becoming famous for having relaunched the Martian dream with a one-way trip event.

We are the direct witnesses that a new historical revolution is happening, making us spectators (with a diverse rate of protagonism) and actors of the most admired profession in the sphere of the fantastic: that of innovators, scientists and engineers who work tirelessly to leave us open-mouthed with a fireworks grand finale.


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