Video: How is extreme robotics transforming our world?

Robots are transforming our world and doing jobs that humans can’t do safely and efficiently, says Dr. William Whittaker in this video for the World Economic Forum. “Robots,” he says “have particular advantage where humans are limited from deep ocean pressure, the vacuum of space, radiation hazards.” Whittaker, who is principal scientist with the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, charts the rise of robots from the factory floor to lunar exploration.

Click on the video above or read key quotes below.

On early robots

“When the work began some few decades ago, robotics was mostly science fiction and fantasy. That all changed very quickly on the occasion of a nuclear accident. We rose to create the robots that did the exploration, then the work and the clean up activities.

“These were a leap of technology at the time. They developed the rudiments of manipulation, combined that with driving machines, achieved the reliability and performed substantial work.
Then really crossing a threshold, machines in all kinds of extreme environments and to add the beginnings of what you call intelligence today. This now matters every time we have a leaking gas well in the deep oceans, or it matters every time we lose a downed aeroplane. They’re working day to day, while we’re sitting here.”

On innovation and impact

“Perhaps the single greatest impact is to cropping and farming. I am a farmer. I farm 900 acres, 300 cattle, and I couldn’t be here unless my machines were there. One of the things that’s interesting about people, is that you can only be at one place in one time. At some in life you can figure out that you can do anything, but maybe not do everything. It’s so interesting to multiply a presence in these ways.”

“Underground is another world and so different because there’s no GPS and no radio. No communication that works. The machines determine where they are by using the sensors and then make their decisions about where to turn and where they’re going …. this is incredibly invaluable in rescue, as well as in safety and in driving the machines that increasingly dig underground.

“Consider for example search recovery of an airplane like Air France 447. Robots searched for two years and found it, identified all the parts and brought up the black box in depths far below humans could go.”

On future use of robots

“There is no more easy mining. We come from Pittsburg. In Pittsburgh we had easy steel, easy coal, easy iron. There’s no more. As the world looks to resources in the future. It’s smaller seams, deeper mining and tougher conditions.

“You may know that there is an international space station and that is always supplied. And that used to be supplied by government. And now it is just a commercial endeavour by the kilogram. In many ways for 40 years, governments have been in charge of not going back to the moon. Humans will always use tools, and those tools will always evolve. If it’s the Iron Age and you’re still using stones, then you probably won’t make it. If you’re making cars and you don’t embrace the tools, it’s not just a disadvantage; you cannot be in business.

“We used to have astronauts and they used to go places. Now all the destinations are robotic and the missions are robotic, and for many, many good reasons. Eventually people will once again have those experiences, but for now it’s robotic. It’s not a plot, it’s not like there was some intention to take things over, it’s just the better way of doing it.”

Author: William Whittaker is a principal scientist with the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

Image: Robots are seen at the “Hannover Messe” industrial trade fair in Hanover. REUTERS/Morris Mac Matzen. 

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