Robotics Will Challenge Our Humanity

Ever since The JetsonsRosie the Robot, robots and robotics have fascinated me. Over time, robotics crept into our everyday world. Stunning advances loom making robots and artificial intelligence and androids less and less a science fiction trope. Robots and robotics and artificial intelligence will challenge our humanity. 

image of a red and white robot slumped in the corner.
By Jiuguang Wang – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The First Robotics

Rudimentary robots have been amongst us for a very long time.

The Greek mathematician, Archytas, invented the first known robotic device in 350 BC. A steam powered flying pigeon may not be your idea of a robot, but it was the first autonomous machine. It only vaguely looked like a pigeon. Look.  

Egyptians used the constant, controlled flow of water to power their clocks (clepsydra) that struck the hour. Learn more about Egyptian water clocks.

The First Automata

In the 17th century, a French artist and inventor built three automata. An automata is a moving mechanical device made in imitation of a living creature. He created a flute player that played twelve songs. A second musical automata played flute, drum, or tambourine. And he created a mechanical duck that acted like a duck. Read more about Jacques de Vaucanson and his inventions.

In 1810, Friedrich Kauffman from Dresden, German created a mechanical soldier that could blow a trumpet

The Birth of Modern Robotics

In1932, Japan produced a wind-up robot toy, “Lilliput.” 

Image of the toy: Giant Lilliput Robot box  Robots and A.I. will challenge our humanity.
Giant Lilliput Robot – By D J Shin – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

But programmable computers developed in the 1940s allowed real robots to take shape.

George Devol invented and patented a re-programmable manipulator called Unimate in the 1950s. He couldn’t sell it. 

The Father of Robotics

Joseph Engelberger bought the patent to Unimate in the 1960s. He modified it into an industrial robotic arm and called it Unimation. Seven years later, General Motors installed the programmable robotic arm on an assembly line in New Jersey. Successful, Engelberger became identified as “the Father of Robotics.”

Modern Robotics

Today robots assist in our work, our play, on the ground, in the air, and on other planets. Below are a few of the robotic devices you might see in your daily life.

Robots in Movies

Image of C3PO from Star wars.  Robots and A.I. will challenge our humanity.
C3PO from Star Wars

Robots for Play

Robot Games (Battlebots)

Image of three battlebot participants and their bots.
By Jes80 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Robotic Floor Cleaners

Robotic Lawn Mowers

Image of robotic lawn mower on a green lawn.

Industrial robots

Image of an industrial robotic arm on display at a trade show.  Robots and A.I. will challenge our humanity.
Humanrobo CC BY-SA 3.0

Bomb Disposal Robots

Image of an israeli robotic bomb disposal unit
Yoram Shoval CC BY-SA 4.0

Robots in Space

Image of Robonaut floating in the International Space Station.  Robots and A.I. will challenge our humanity.
Robonaut—Image credit: NASA
Selfie of the Curiosity rover on Mars.
Curiosity on Mars Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Robots Making Life Better

Robotics is also making a huge difference in the lives of amputees. Here’s an example:

Even more bionic is this man’s prosthetic. Be aware that he discusses his horrific work accident and his depression after and during his recovery. He also shares some humor and an upbeat message.

What’s Next?

They make more and more advances in robotics every day. Watch this: 

True, the above robot is tiny but what an achievement!

What’s next for robotics? I don’t know, but I expect that there will be refinements in flexibility and usability. Some refinements will make them more appealing to humans. And they will be cheaper to make and use. Perhaps we’ll have a new, improved Rosie the Robot in our homes someday. But if we do, will she follow Isaac Asimov’s three rules?  

Asimov’s Laws of Robotics

  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Robots Challenge Our Humanity

In the video below, Rob Miles (a British AI researcher and YouTuber) discusses why the Laws of Robotics won’t work. The simple question of what is “human” becomes a complex philosophical and ethical discussion.

Miles asks is an unborn fetus a human? Is a person in a vegetative state a human? How do dolphins and chimpanzees fit into the definition, or do they? 

We have created artificial limbs. What if we provide people with crippling diseases (think Stephen Hawking) a way to function in a bionic body? Would they still be human?

In Conclusion

The problem of robots is simple as long as the robots remain simple. But as they become more and more complex, so does the question of what is human. Instead of what’s next for robotics, we need to clarify some definitions. What is human? Intelligence? Humanity? How interesting that robotics will challenge our humanity.


    1. Thanks, Jennette. I’ve been eyeing those robot vacuums. Good to know they work well. I just might take one more step toward the android or bionic person in my home.

  1. I’d say the question won’t be “is it human” so much as “does it qualify for the status of a “person”? (“What is a human?” asks a question with a quantifiable biological definition. It’s too narrow and ethnocentric to be helpful when talking about nonhumans). If you talk with people involved in AI research and robotics, you’ll find they talk about amazing advances in robotics (physical movement and task accomplishment), but the ones being technically exact speak of artificial “pseudo intelligence.” We’re good at getting our “smart” devices to seem intelligent–not so good at actually turning them into thinking beings.

    We’re still very far from the sort of self-aware cognition, freeform reasoning, and cognitive complexity that humans (or even dogs, dolphins, elephants, chimpanzees, and probably other as-yet-unidentified animals) can accomplish. As a programmer working in the AI field told me this fall, “cognition is really hard.” Meanwhile, we haven’t managed to create a self-driving car that can distinguish an adult in a crosswalk more than 40% of the time (forget kids–a recent AAA test showed they hit the smaller profile 89% of the time). I’m holding out for the AI that can realize it’s being hacked, and fight back!

    For all too many of us, the more salient question is not “is it a person,” however. It’s “will it take my job in the next five years?” On that score, the robots are already winning the war.

    1. As always you offer an interesting perspective, Jan.

      If you look up the word, human, you’ll find there’s a broad definition that includes the word person. Thus, in essence, we said the same thing.

      As for how far we are from self-aware cognition, freeform reasoning, and cognitive complexity–that’s impossible to know. It appears right now that we are far from it, however no one knows when or what next discovery will happen that takes robotics to that level. In my opinion, we should address the “Is it human” type of questions sooner rather than later.

      As for people’s jobs–the question isn’t really about the job (most people don’t love their jobs). They want to know how will I earn a living now? (Semantics is a slippery slope.*smile*) It’s a valid question and should be part of the larger discussion. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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