Apr 012011
 
ASIMO - a bipedal robot

Image via Wikipedia

Management thinkers need to ponder more about homo-robo relations

ROBOTS have been the stuff of science fiction for so long that it is surprisingly hard to see them as the stuff of management fact. A Czech playwright, Karel Capek, gave them their name in 1920 (from the Slavonic word for “work”). An American writer, Isaac Asimov, confronted them with their most memorable dilemmas. Hollywood turned them into superheroes and supervillains. When some film critics drew up lists of Hollywood’s 50 greatest good guys and 50 greatest baddies, the only character to appear on both lists was a robot, the Terminator.

It is time for management thinkers to catch up with science-fiction writers. Robots have been doing menial jobs on production lines since the 1960s. The world already has more than 1m industrial robots. There is now an acceleration in the rates at which they are becoming both cleverer and cheaper: an explosive combination. Robots are learning to interact with the world around them. Their ability to see things is getting ever closer to that of humans, as is their capacity to ingest information and act on it. Tomorrow’s robots will increasingly take on delicate, complex tasks. And instead of being imprisoned in cages to stop them colliding with people and machines, they will be free to wander.

America’s armed forces have blazed a trail here. They now have no fewer than 12,000 robots serving in their ranks. Peter Singer, of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, says mankind’s 5,000-year monopoly on the fighting of war is breaking down. Recent additions to the battlefield include tiny “insects” that perform reconnaissance missions and giant “dogs” to terrify foes. The Pentagon is also working on the EATR, a robot that fuels itself by eating whatever biomass it finds around it.

But the civilian world cannot be far behind. Who better to unclog sewers or suck up nuclear waste than these remarkable machines? The Japanese have made surprisingly little use of robots to clear up after the recent earthquake, given their world leadership in this area. They say that they had the wrong sort of robots in the wrong places. But they have issued a global call for robotic assistance and are likely to put more robots to work shortly.

As robots advance into the service industries they are starting to look less like machines and more like living creatures. The Paro (made by AIST, a Japanese research agency) is shaped like a baby seal and responds to attention. Honda’s robot, ASIMO, is humanoid and can walk, talk and respond to commands. Roxxxy, an American-made “sex robot”, can be programmed to appeal to all preferences, and (unlike many a real-life spouse) listens to its partner to try to improve its performance.

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