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The robots are coming

No, they’re not coming. They’re already here.

Made famous by George Orwell’s dystopian vision, 1984 has already passed – yet uncannily, it’s still somehow a future date, one that hopefully we’ll never live. The same goes for robots.

They’re old things, robots – just consider that the term itself was coined by the Capek brothers some time around 1920. And yet, we still think of robots as a thing of the future.

We need to thank popular culture for this. In entertainment, films mostly, robots are always humanoid. And they only come in two emotional flavours – happy or angry.

Robots like Bender, for instance, in Matt Groening’s Futurama, are funnily awkward in their attempts to be human. But mostly, robots are violently rebellious and out to kill us – they have been angry since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927.

What are they angry about? No idea.

In reality, robots already play an important role in present life. And no, despite all the conspiracy theories, they don’t rule the world – rather, with humans and robots working together, a new world of possibilities is opening up.

Let’s take medicine, for instance. Given their extreme precision and slim margin of error, robots are becoming critical in the medical field.

In surgery, for instance, robots can perform major operations while only making small incisions, which lessens trauma, infections and healing time. Medical schools are also using robots that mimic live patients’ feelings – this helps the doctors and surgeons of tomorrow prepare to treat people.

In transportation, the Google Driverless Car has, earlier this year, been given the green light to circulate in the streets of Nevada. While there are still no plans to commercialise the driverless car, the idea is that in the future, such cars will have the potential to significantly improve driving safety.

In construction, the University of Southern California has developed a system called Contour Crafting – this allows machines to construct entire buildings in layers guided by computers. According to researchers, Contour Crafting can reduce construction times and costs by 75 per cent.

Modern warfare increasingly relies on robots. The initial idea for pilotless drones took root way back in 1916 and during World War I, the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane was developed.

Nowadays, pilotless drones are used for surveillance, defence and attack – the United States Air Force, for instance, has used its unmanned aerial vehicle Predator over Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

There are also controversial plans for drones to be used by US police.

Robots also act as a showcase for technology. Honda has been developing the capabilities of its robot, Asimo, for the past two decades.

The latest version of Asimo is an autonomous machine that has the decision-making capability to determine and adapt its behaviour according to its surroundings, various situations and the movement of people.

Even in sport – that ultimate symbol of human endeavour and spirit – robots are off the bench. At the London 2012 Olympics, for instance, they were present in the form of underwater robotic cameras positioned to capture unique views of athletes in action.

What does the future hold? There is no robot yet that can accurately predict or determine the future, but it doesn’t seem that robots will be evil. And anyway, why discuss the future when robots are already here?

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