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Robots Inspired by Science Fiction

Despite the omission of a final consonant , ASIMO – Advanced Step in Innovative MObility – is an unintentional but nonetheless fitting tribute to the conceptual genius of his near-namesake.

Isaac Asimov was the creative genesis behind the visionary concept of the more humanlike android – an iconic image held with as much conviction today as it was in the 1940’s when Isaac plied his prophetic trade. Asimov took his own inspiration from a 1931 short story “The Jameson Satellite” by Neil R. Jones. In the story, the Zoromes were a race of benevolent mechanical men. Read by Asimov at the age of 11, this influence was heavily cited in Asimov’s 1975 book “The Golden Age”.

Even as early as the 1940’s, the robot was hardly a new idea. One can go back decades and find a multitude of menacing mechanical men throughout cinematic history.

Czech playwright Karel Capek is credited with the first use of the word ‘Robot’ in his play ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ (1921). Taken from the Czech word ‘robota’, meaning work, it described humanoid androids designed for menial and repetitive labour. The story followed the monotonous exploits of the mechanical minions produced in Rossum’s factory. Given human characteristics, these automatons were impassive and compliant, until one scientist gave them emotions and turned them into ruthless killing machines that took over the world. Such a plot would become the staple diet of robo-related science fiction for years to come. Man would engineer such marvels, then subsequently come to regret such actions as the creations turned on their creators.

Isaac Asimov took an established idea and delivered it to the next level, writing many seminal novels pertaining to the concept of robotics. His well established 3 laws were an essential underlying element in the science fiction stories he wrote so successfully. The ‘I Robot’ series – a collection of 9 science fiction short stories published in 1950 – had already been publicly aired during the previous decade in magazines such as ‘Super science stories’ and ‘Astounding Science fiction’.

The 3 laws governed the behavioural characteristics humans expected of advanced robots and were as follows:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Though not of the order of autonomous creations envisaged by Isaac, ASIMO is the most advanced robot of it’s generation. Created by Japanese motor giant Honda, the droid stands at 4ft 3 inches, weighing some 119 pounds. At a glance ‘he’ bares more than a passing resemblance to a small astronaut wearing a backpack. Whilst not quite an android due to it’s distinctly un-human appearance, ASIMO is boldly classed as a ‘humanoid’ robot, eagerly displaying human characteristics.

ASIMO is bipedal, can run up to a speed of 3.7 mph, crouch, bend and walk up stairs – all in a beautifully fluid motion. He is able to converse with humans, recognize moving objects, distinguish sounds and even remember faces and gestures. His very existence represents not only where we are today with such advances, but is an example of the enormous potential we’ve created for the future of such applications. He is the current model in a line of eleven that began in 1986 with E0.

In the realm of science fiction however, ASIMO would be considered ‘old world technology’, a prelude to more refined android entities such as Isaac Asimov’s ‘Sonny’, a central character in ‘I Robot’.

Nevertheless, this very real product of human endeavour is the closest thing yet to our perception of cinematic robots. Humans are a finicky lot. Ever since mechanical men were first depicted in movies, we’ve held certain expectations regarding how these things should look – were we ever to evolve the capacity to develop them. Society has become creatively obese, having endured decades of frenzied, cultural force-feeding from movies that often leave us in awe and ultimately allow us to be inspired.

The pursuit of the ultimate android is set to continue for decades. In the meantime, a small selection of robotic concepts that can cite their beginnings in science fiction are listed here. Ready for some amazing hi-end technology?

HI-MEMS (Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems) is a program instigated by DARPA ( Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency). The project has enjoyed moderate success. At the University of Michigan, a team of scientists successfully created a cyborg unicorn beetle micro-system.

This cutting edge technology creates a machine-insect interface that allows for ultimate locomotive control over swarms of reconnaissance bugs, either by GPS or remote control. Micro-mechanisms are placed inside the insect during the early stages of metamorphosis. As the majority of tissue develops during the latter stages, the electronic systems become encased inside the living organism.

Program manager Dr. Amit Lal gleaned the idea from the 1990 science fiction novel “Sparrowhawk” by Thomas A Easton. In the novel, genetically engineered animals are greatly enlarged, then implanted with controllable electronic devices.

Electronic stimulation of wing muscles on either side initiates a turn. An impulse on the left side turns the insect right and vice versa. The vision for these cyborg insects is to embed them with different types of MEMS sensors – video camera, microphones and perhaps chemical sniffing capability. Hordes of these creatures would be ‘bred’ for selective missions. They would be dispatched into enemy territory in swarms for effective recon missions.

This type of application is obviously not governed by the aforementioned ‘3 Laws’. The three tenets were, after all, intended to serve as a guide for genuine automatons. The simple fact is as long as humans remain even in partial control of these mechanisms, we will surely seek only to improve their military capability – perhaps even developing a more hostile use for them.

Advanced robotic systems are not just the domain of DARPA. Thankfully, more life-enhancing technology continues to be unveiled.

In the realm of high-risk surgery, the Da Vinci Si system is the worlds only robotic surgical tool with full 3D/HD vision, creating amazing depth perception. An impressive array of instrumentation provides a wealth of capabilities for multiple surgical specialties. Fingertip controls allow for full dexterity in execution of manoeuvres. The technology is strikingly similar to a surgical machine described in the 1939 short story “Masson’s secret” by Raymond Z Gallun.

Also of immense medical benefit, the Michelangelo bionic hand was created by German medical manufacturer Otto Brock. The prosthetic limb was successfully implanted in a 28 year old man born without a right hand. The recipient Axel Eichinger took 4 weeks to learn how to use his new arm. Made from stainless steel and aluminium, with a soft skin-like covering, it offers full dexterity and comes with a full compliment of abilities.

Compare this to Martin Caidin’s 1972 novel “Cyborg” – eventually turned into the six million dollar man television series following the adventures of Steve Austin, who was also fitted with a bionic arm.

Autonomous robot scientist “Adam” makes it’s first discovery. Highlighting 12 new functions for genes. This represented the first time a self-directed robotic system carried out every step of a discovery without human intervention. It effectively automates the whole scientific process. The machine was designed by scientists at Aberystwyth University and the University of Cambridge to carry out fully automated scientific study. “Eve” was the moniker given to Adam’s new counterpart – perhaps unsurprisingly! ‘She’ is utilised in drugs research, after losing the taste for apples completely.

In this case, comparisons can be drawn with the 1979 novel “The Schumann Computer” by Larry Niven – about a supercomputer that was able to conduct it’s own research.

When put next to such technological advancements as military EOD’s (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) robots and UAV’s (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), it is clear that yesterdays science fiction is fast becoming today’s science fact – and conceivably, tomorrows entirely plausible reality.



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