Robots are coming
Cape Town - Robots that perform the functions we see in science fiction movies are still some way off, but the technology for domestic robots is growing fast.
"I believe that we will see robots that perform smaller individual tasks, but not necessarily robots as complex as those in the sci-fi movies or as butler robots, since we may not really need such robots in our daily life," Professor Hendrik Lund told News24.
Lund is from Denmark where he is known for his robotics projects and workshops with children and was a guest speaker at the CSIR Meraka Institute and he was talking about the design approach for technological tools that may enhance playful interaction.
"I believe that we will see many robots, and we will have a lot of robotic systems that perform services, for example, cleaning, lawn moving and heavy lifting" said Lund.
He said that robots today have been designed with a better sense of "dynamic environments" and are vastly improved from 20 years ago.
"The sensors have improved, and as with computers the processing power has increased dramatically. Currently, we see more and more improvements also in the artificial intelligence of the robotic systems making them more flexible and adaptive," said Lund.
He indicated though, that industry will continue to lead in robotic applications because the environment is easier to control than a domestic one. This, he said, meant that domestic robots are still some years away from universal application.
"In industrial robotics it is often possible to control the environment, for example, make the assembly line run at a certain speed, always place objects at a specific place, cover the incoming light, to make the tasks easy for the industrial robots.
"This is not the case in domestic environments, where things are never static and always change (the position of things changes place, incoming light changes over the day and the season, something suddenly comes in the way of a mobile robot)," said Lund.
He does think that homes will become more digital as more common domestic appliances incorporate microprocessors and advanced sensors, but generic software to drive robots will remain elusive as the robot's environment may change quickly.
"At some level you can make generic software for high level decision making in robots, but you always have to be careful, because there needs to be a close loop with the hardware and the sensory input from the environment,
which may change at a rapid speed," he said.
Lund also said that space exploration has greatly assisted robot design and manufacture as there were many tasks suited to robots in the harsh environment of space or other planets.
"The space race and especially the idea of going to Mars has influenced robotics in the way that there is a renewed focus from some researchers on making autonomous robots, and co-operating systems of many small robots.
"The distributed system of many small robots may hold the advantage that if one robot suddenly fails up on Mars, then all the other robots will just continue performing the task that it was supposed to do," he said.
Lund also believes that as robotics improves, so will the use of artificial robotic limbs as has already been demonstrated by Professor Yoshiyuki Sankai of Tsukuba University, Japan. He demonstrated the HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limbs) robot suit that enhances human body functions.
He added that there was still some debate about the ethics of robots used in warfare, such as the unmanned drones in operation in Afghanistan and Iraq, saying that he would focus on robots to help mankind.
"I would never develop military robots myself, but would rather develop robotic systems that can help us as mankind, as when we develop playware, which is intelligent hardware and software that creates play and playful experiences for any kind of user," he said.
Lund has published several scientific articles in the field of robotics and has headed the Lego Lab from 1997 to 2000.