Is this my worst nightmare, or perfect Utopia?

Ever since Karel Capek coined the term ‘robot’ in his 1920 play Rossum’s Universal Robots, we have associated these ‘working machines’ with the human form. That powerful image has been promoted by the creators of movie icons such as C3PO and R2D2. It persists in the popular imagination to this day.

Yesterday, Disney’s Robots-for-Life Division launched a new product that is sure to turn this old perception on its head once and for all.

When you unpack the new HomeCare One robot you realize that these robots are not ‘one machine’ at all, but a ‘network’ of more than forty devices – an intelligent and co-operative set of components that work together as a ‘team’, even when apart from each other. They connect via a new robotic communications protocol based on the now-pervasive WiMAX smart phone infrastructure.

You can keep the ‘heart’ of the machine (think of it as an old-fashioned ‘server’) wherever in the house you have some free space – say under the stairs. The rest of the robot team, many almost-invisible nano-machines, move around the house doing their chores, absorbing dust, cutting the lawn or whatever.

My first thought was: “Get these guys out of here!” But now, after a month as part of the pilot study, they seem to have blended seamlessly into my home.

I must admit that sometimes I wake with a start, sure that I have heard something moving around downstairs!

ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be

Karel Capek was one of the most important Czech writers of the 20th century. He is perhaps best known outside of his own country as a science fiction author, who wrote long before science fiction became established as a separate genre. He introduced and made popular the word ‘robot’, which first appeared in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) in 1920.

The true inventor of the term robot is widely believed to have been Karel’s brother Josef Capek. ‘Robota’ is Czech for the German word Arbeit (‘work’) and is usually translated as ‘serf’ or ‘forced labor’. From this word Josef (both brothers used to work together) created the word robot, a working or serving machine.

This link of a working machine with the human form persists in the popular imagination to this day. In general humanoid robots have a torso with a head, two arms and two legs. Some humanoid robots may also have a ‘face’, with ‘eyes’ and ‘mouth’. Star Wars’ C3PO is likely the most popular recent example, with R2D2 a classical subset of physical human features, albeit still retaining a distinctly human character.

Other related terms have entered popular usage. An android is an artificially created being, (often robotic), that closely resembles a human. A cyborg is typically a humanoid robot made up of a mix of organic and inorganic parts.

Robots are created to perform some of the same physical and mental tasks that humans undergo daily. Scientists and specialists from many different fields including engineering, psychology, and linguistics have combined their efforts to create robots as human-like as possible.

Some projects aim to create robots that one day will be able to both understand human intelligence and reason like humans, perhaps to work alongside humans or to perform those tasks we simply do not want to do. Production line robots at Toyota and GM, although mostly stationary, still exhibit many ‘human’ characteristics. Everyday medical robots that do eye surgery or assist in key-hole operations should have taught us that the ‘human’ analogy was not going to be the true future of robotics.

Since the advent of nanotechnology we have started to think differently about robots and their future role.

In his 1999 novel ‘A Deepness in the Sky’ Vernor Vinge offered a compelling vision of a future where armies of small, lightweight robotic elements would pervade an environment. Such a system would allow a user to automatically gather and analyze data from every corner of the space, to manipulate remote objects, to communicate with other users of the swarm and to carry out distributed computations. In the engineering community, the idea of deploying teams of small inexpensive robotic agents to accomplish various tasks is one that has gained increasing currency over the last few years.

This paradigm offers several compelling advantages. Multiple robots can be distributed around objects being manipulated to provide mechanical advantages and simplify planning problems. Sensor information gathered from multiple viewpoints simultaneously can be integrated, allowing the system to form a more complete and accurate understanding of the state of the environment. The team concept also offers a certain amount of robustness since the failure of any one robot can be compensated for by the actions of the other team members. Additionally, since the robots are spatially distributed, it is less likely that any single catastrophe will completely destroy the capabilities of the ensemble.

Think of it as an internet of small robots. Think of them as a distributed living and adaptive system. Just think what they could accomplish. Just think of the new business opportunities.

2004: The idea of Networked Robots emerges
IEEE Society of Robotics and Automation’s Technical Committee starts work on what they call ‘Networked Robots’ in May 2004.

A ‘networked robot’ is defined as a robotic device connected to a communications network such as the Internet or LAN. The network could be wired or wireless and two subclasses of Networked Robots were identified:

1) Tele-operated, where human supervisors send commands and receive feedback via the network. Such systems support research, education, and public awareness by making valuable resources accessible to broad audiences.

2) Autonomous, where robots and sensors exchange data via the network. In such systems, the sensor network extends the effective sensing range of the robots, allowing them to communicate with each other over long distances to coordinate their activity. The robots in turn can deploy, repair, and maintain the sensor network to increase its longevity, and utility. A broad challenge is to develop a science base that couples communication to control to enable such new capabilities.

Many new applications are being developed ranging from automation to exploration.

2006: Distributed Robots
The idea that the functions in a robot can be split and distributed into small almost independent entities gains ground. This goes beyond small mobile robots for collaborative surveillance tasks and conceives the idea of teams of distributed robots working together.

To combine information from distributed robot teams, it is critical to know the locations of all the robots relative to each other and to combine sensor information from all of their local environments into a complete picture of the total ‘system’ of which they are a part.

Various US universities develop the work started in the late 1990s on ‘centimeter-scale’ robots, called Millibots.

2010: First commercial self-reproducing machines
US company MechDNA launches the first commercial robot that can make copies of itself.

“Self-reproduction is central to biological life for long-term sustainability and evolutionary adaptation,” says a MechDNA spokesperson. “Now we are able to deliver the first robot with some of these basic abilities.”

These robots come in building blocks no larger than dice and are able to ‘evolve’ exterior functionality that will create mobility and task-specific functions with every new generation. The first applications are likely to be in very simple household tasks such as clipping lawns and cleaning. Because of their very small size they will have to work in ‘swarms’ in order to create economies of scale.

The US Army is said to have funded a great deal of the original research and have allowed this technology to be released to the market as their research moves more advanced areas.

2012: NASA enters commercial NanoTech
Seven years after it started its breakthrough project on “autonomous nano-technology swarms” (ANTS), NASA launches a commercial application of tiny robots that work together and alter their shape to flow over uneven terrain. They can alter (or ‘evolve’) their shape to create structures like communications antennae and solar sails to power their tiny nano-motors.

New partnerships with US and Chinese manufacturers will lead to a bevy of new products for home and factory, as the technology is offered under the open systems model and CopyLeft agreements.

2015: Disney launches the first commercial product
Disney’s Robots-for-Life Division launches the new HomeCare One robot, based primarily on NASA hardware technology and open systems software. These robots are not ‘one machine’ at all, but the basic model consists of a ‘network’ of more than forty devices – an intelligent and co-operative set of components that work together as a ‘team’.

If you need more performance or coverage, you can just add more robot components to the network. The brochure says that 500 nano-cutters should be enough for a 100 square meter lawn.

Chinese companies promise that their focus on “biological nano-machines” will leap-frog American technology within twelve months.

Pressure groups are already calling for a Bill of Rights for nano-robots. “These organisms are essentially alive,” says a spokesman. “If they can reproduce and evolve we should give them the same rights as any other living organism.”

Warning: Hazardous thinking at work

Despite appearances to the contrary, Futureworld cannot and does not predict the future. Our Mindbullets scenarios are fictitious and designed purely to explore possible futures, challenge and stimulate strategic thinking. Use these at your own risk. Any reference to actual people, entities or events is entirely allegorical. Copyright Futureworld International Limited. Reproduction or distribution permitted only with recognition of Copyright and the inclusion of this disclaimer.