Robots are things which it seems we can no longer live without; however it is questionable whether we will ever be entirely comfortable living with them? Films like The Terminator, apart from being interminable, highlight a long-standing discomfort that appears to be deep rooted in the human psyche. While your average ABB robot operator – those who daily swear and curse at the traditional robot arm found in every possible manufacturing setting – may well not lie awake at night worrying about the day that robots take over the world, for many of us it is a different story. Throughout history it seems that we’ve found the concept of ‘creating’ life at the same time fascinating and terrifying. From Frankenstein through to the concept of playing God, seeing ourselves outdone by our creations (and possibly destroyed) by them has become a common theme.
Although it is a largely long forgotten fact, even the word ‘robot’ has fairly negative connotations. It was not coined by the scientific branch of the creative world, but by a Czech writer in the 1920s. The word was coined from the Slavic robota by Karl ?apek – although he credited his brother with actually coming up with the term. Robot doesn’t translate as anything as cutesy as ‘handy little helper’ or ‘blooming great pile of rusting nuisance that never works’ (often used by those who work daily with robots). The word instead means forced labour. This fact in itself might suggest one of the many reasons for our underlying discomfort with these beasts of burden in that robots are often employed to complete tasks that are too dirty, dangerous or downright boring for humans to contemplate.
Take Over the World: You must be Joking
While those forced to control recalcitrant ABB robots and their complex and easily disrupted mechanics every day may not be so interested in the deep rooted angst of the mass of the population surrounding robots, robot manufacturers are keenly aware of the problem. Those working in a manufacturing setting may be forgiven for believing that their useful robotic co-worker couldn’t organise a knees up in a lubricant factory, never mind take over the world and so the latest generation of robots are facing a challenge in integrating with the rest of us.
Smiling, Boyish and from Frankenstein Country
Apart from our possible guilt that we are forcing these creatures to do our dirty work, which as they grow increasingly intelligent and move towards not only being able to clean the grill but realise what a rotten job it actually is, even the best designed domestic robot still has a long way to go before it can truly become part of the family. The latest attempt is Roboy, created in the main by the university of Zurich. Ironic perhaps that this attempt to engineer a human should take place not so very far from Mary Shelley’s iconic monster and be created by the nationals of the same country as that charming Dr Frankenstein. Roboy however has not been strung together with any old bits and pieces from the nearest cemetery, but from the latest technology. His design, unlike your average industrial robot, is not just designed to be functional but to disarm us lily-livered humans. Technologically the greatest innovation has been the creation of a ‘tendon-driven’ design to mimic human muscle and create a more ‘natural’ appearance. Given that the zombie like creaking, whirring and grinding of many existing manufacturing robots is enough to send us screaming for the hills, this factor is expected to make us feel more at home with Roboy.
Although the name is designed to disarm us, robots are, at the moment, completely genderless and tend not to age, at least not in the same way as us. Roboy however, is designed to be a cute little ‘boy’ who we’ll happily take into our homes and then exploit shamelessly. His facial features have been picked by Facebook users to look winsome and cute. At least when he realises that being sent up the chimney to sweep it out is actually a really rotten job that we wouldn’t even make our own kids do and turns on us with a hybrid hair dryer and welding gun that he’s knocked up in his own time, Roboy will slaughter us with a friendly smile and will no doubt wish us a ‘nice day’ as he does so.
Ian Appleton is a writer who feels uneasy at the prospect of living and working alongside ABB robots because he does not like the idea of us becoming dependent on them. However he does recognise that they are advantageous to speeding up the production time in a manufacturing business.
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