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Spotlight on robotics: Convergence is just around the corner

27 Oct 2015  | Michael Parks

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For a very long time, man has been using tools to allow him to perform tasks much more efficiently. From very crude and simple devices of the past, now our tools have become more complex, but our reasons to invent tools remains consistent, the desire to be more efficient, reduce risk to health and safety, and cut down on the drudgery of daily life. Enter now advanced robotics, a new category of tools that will change everything.

Robot

The term 'robot' was first used in the 1920 play 'R.U.R.'

Robots are not new, yet their abilities and breadth of application will grow exponentially in the years ahead. Decades of academic and industrial research combined with increasingly cheaper components and facile manufacturing techniques are ushering in a robotic revolution. Leading artificial intelligence (AI) researcher Ray Kurzweil calls out robotics as one of the research areas that will lead to the "singularity," a concept that argues the union of technology with human biology, and an era in which "our intelligence will become increasingly non-biological." According to Kurzweil, the "singularity" will result from the next phase of human evolution that will emerge after the convergence of robotics with computers, genetics, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence. As robots become more human-like both in appearance and cognitive ability, our fascination with them will undoubtedly grow. But will our acceptance and dependence on robots also grow?

There are three fields where advanced robotics is yielding promising results. While most of us are familiar with robots far removed from our daily lives, such as those that assemble goods in factories or scour distant planets, next generation robots are going to be more personal and autonomous, think less "Mars Rover" and more "Star Wars droids." It is worth noting that many consider the rise of robots that have equal, if not greater, computational power than the human brain to be a terrifying prospect. Technology giants Bill Gates and Elon Musk have spoken publicly about their concerns of robots and AI leading to potential apocalyptic scenarios. Musk has even gone so far as to donate $10-million to ensure we build safeguards into AI projects. While there is no doubt that certain risks will come to pass, such as robots replacing humans in certain jobs, we will come into a more optimistic future with our electronic counterparts.

Da Vinci Surgical Robot

Da Vinci Surgical Robot (Source: Wikipedia)

Paging Dr. Robot to the Operating Room: Robots in Healthcare

There is a decent chance that some of us have already experienced robotic assisted surgery. In 2000 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the da Vinci Surgery System, the first robotic laparoscopic surgical tool. Robots, coupled with telepresence technology allow a surgeon to be in one location and the patient, along with the surgical robot in another. Advances in robotic technology will eventually remove the surgeon altogether, thus reducing risk of error and eliminating the spread of infection from surgeon to patient. Already there is work being done to completely automate tissue suturing and the application of anaesthetics. Pharmacists may find assistance or replacement by robots. The UCSF Medical Centre has a robotics-controlled pharmacy at two locations that pick, package, and dispense individual doses of pills.

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