Robotic Technology

walle-eIn 1942, science fiction established the 'Three Laws of Robotics' in a short story by Isaac Asimov called 'Runaround', although they are more popularly associated with his collection of short stories called 'I, Robot' on which the 2004 film of the same name was very loosely based.  These laws suggested that robots should have a benign nature in the service of humanity:

  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 any 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.

This nature is supported by the picture of the Wall-E character taken from the Pixar film in 2008. However, in truth, science fiction has not always presented such a benign picture of robotics and there are many examples of almost Frankenstein creations that threaten the existence of humanity. As such, the intention of this section is to try separate fact from fiction as robotics could play a pivotal role in the development of AI. 

In the biological model of life, intelligence and physiology are closely coupled, because while intelligence is a function of the brain, the brain requires the support of the organism's physiology, as a complete system, to operate. Within this general evolutionary model, information is received as sensory input, processed by the brain and then translated into some appropriate motor response. The response can be as subtle as a small change in a facial expression through to a back-somersault of the entire body. As such, mind and body are part of an integrated system that has apparently evolved from a single-cell organism to solve one overriding problem in the natural world: survival. While we can only be amazed at the complexity of physiology in the biological model, and the time it took to evolve, it may not necessarily be the right model for AI. In our discussion, we have used the accepted definition of weak and strong AI. This distinction will also have a bearing on the development of AI physiology.

The word ‘robot’ comes from the Czech word for forced labour or serf; initial steps towards AI will include robotic ‘anatomical’ systems. In 1979, the Robot Institute of America produced the following functional definition of a robot:

A robot is a re-programmable multifunctional manipulator designed to move material parts, tools or specialized devices through various programmed motions for the performance of a variety of tasks.

While this may have been a technically accurate description at that time, in terms of the evolution of AI, science fiction has already conjured up more futuristic visions of androids, i.e. robots with humanoid form, having both intelligence and manual dexterity. However, for this vision to progress, robotic systems not only have to evolve to become more intelligent, but will also require the capability to process real-time sensory information from the surrounding environment – see Human Intelligence. However, should AI ever eventually evolve to become a sentient intelligence; its physiology may eventually owe more to aesthetics and fashion rather than just functionality of purpose.