LET'S REMINISCE: The rise of robots

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat

On Jan. 25, 1921, Karel Capek’s play “R.U.R.”—short for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”—premiered in Prague. It was a sensation. Within two years it had been translated into 30 languages, including English, to which it introduced the word “robot.” Capek’s vision of unwilling slaves of humanity destined to rise up and destroy their makers went on to influence our view of both automation and ourselves.

In a century-long dialogue between inventors of fictional and actual robots, engineers have for the most part been forced to play catch-up, either realizing or subverting the vision of robots first revealed in books, movies and television. Now, the reality of robots is in some areas running ahead of fiction, even ahead of what those who study robots for a living are able to keep track of.

This greatly increased visibility of robots—now in stores, hotels and health-care facilities, as well as on our streets and above our heads—is an indicator of their evolving nature. It’s also the outward sign of a watershed moment.

In 2019, the number of industrial robots sold and put into use was 373,000, according to the International Federation of Robotics, an organization that conducts an annual, global robot census based. That number has grown about 11% a year since 2014, to a total of 2.7 million industrial robots in use world-wide. Industrial robots—descendants of the Unimate robot arm first installed at a General Motors factory in 1961—are the kind most common in manufacturing, where they perform tasks like welding, painting and assembly. They work hard, but they’re not very smart.

Also in 2019, 173,000 “professional service robots” were sold and installed. That number is projected to reach 537,000 units a year—a threefold increase—by 2023. These are the kind of robots businesses use outside of manufacturing. They perform a wide variety of functions, including defense, warehouse automation and disinfection in hospitals.

These robots tend to be much smarter, for they are equipped with advanced software, sensors and Wi-Fi or other forms of connectivity. And instead of being hidden away in factories like industrial robots, they can generally do their jobs alongside people.

If current growth rates for both of these kinds of robots hold, then some time soon it’s likely service robots will overtake industrial robots in units sold or installed. That trend will bring new benefits for companies and consumers—and new challenges for workers.

According to one expert, “The main difference between automation today and what we had 50 or 60 years ago is that we added software.” Just as critical was wireless connectivity—Wi-Fi was new at the time—and off-the-shelf sensors, like the black-and-white cameras used in the original Kiva robots. By far the greatest share of professional service robots are those used in logistics, and Amazon is the leading user.

The new generation of robots has already proved adaptable to an astonishing array of tasks, as evident in research conducted by Robin Murphy, director of the Humanitarian Robotics Laboratory at Texas A&M University. Early in the course of the global pandemic, Dr. Murphy and her team set out to study the ways robots were being used to help humans adapt to the effects of Covid-19. She and her team documented 326 different robots, used in 29 different applications, ranging from telemedicine and hospital disinfection to quarantine enforcement and lab automation.

Of these, 87% were existing robots adapted to help cope with the new virus. The sheer number and variety of mature robot technologies available for use in fighting the pandemic showed how companies and organizations are now spoiled for robot choice, Dr. Murphy says.

But not all robot adaptations are successful. In 2019, the world’s first “robot hotel” (in Japan) was forced to eliminate more than half of its 243 robots, because they made life more difficult for guests and co-workers. In November 2020, Walmart scrapped its plans to have robots take inventory of its stores’ shelves, after discovering that humans could do the job more efficiently.

A century after Capek introduced the word “robot” to the English language, the one thing real-life robots have yet to do is run amok and destroy us all, as they did in his play. But there’s one thing he did get right: As their ranks swell, and as they take on more tasks in more places, robots are, in their own way, taking over.

Jerry Lincecum

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com