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Introduction > Robots: Today and Tomorrow

Robots: Today and Tomorrow

So far in the twenty-first century, we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in real-world robotics, thanks in part to the popularity of such TV shows as Battlebots, Robotica, and Robot Wars, and genuinely autonomous robo-pets such as the Sony AIBO. Another trend driving robotic development is the cheap and widespread availability of robotic “building blocks.” Building sets (such as LEGO MINDSTORMS), sophisticated (and reasonably priced) microcontrollers, and other building components now allow anyone with the desire and a few bucks in his or her pocket to build a robot.

Contrary to Karel Capek’s vision in his landmark 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), there still are no “universal robots.” Today’s bots, be they factory floor workers, bomb-retrieving police bots, robotic surgeons, or Martian rovers, are tailored to a particular task (or set of tasks). This will likely be the case until robots learn how to learn (and apply these smarts to changing situations). But in many quarters, this isn’t even a priority. Biomimicry (taking design cues from nature) is still a chief inspiration to many of today’s robot pioneers. In the coming decades, we’re just as likely (some would say more likely) to see widespread adoption of robots based on swarms of bugs, lizards, flies, and crustaceans, as we are bots built upon human dimensions. And while some labor to create intelligent, adaptive robots with big brains like ours, others are keen on creating bottom-up bots with more modest (and robust) tools for directly interacting with their environments.

Few recent developments have done more to revitalize people’s excitement about real-world robots than the Sony AIBO and the uncannily human-like ASIMO (which recently starred in a Honda car commercial). Robo-tunas, mechanical snakes, and insectoid walkers may hold great promise for, respectively, swimming the oceans, searching sewers, and climbing into bubbling volcanoes, but we humans are still most inspired by robots that look and act like us (or our best friends). What can we say? It’s a weakness.


We’ll be discussing robot combat sports and robo-pets in Chapter 2, “Robot Evolution,” and reviewing popular robot building sets, kits, and parts in Chapter 6, “Acquiring Mad Robot Skills.”

It is likely that our robotic future will include both these branches of robo-evolution, and many more. We haven’t even mentioned the R2-D2s of the world, bots who don’t try to look like anything special, whose form follows their function. This is the realm of the robot vacuum, the robo-mower, the roving security camera and smoke detector, all coming soon to a home in your neighborhood (most likely yours, after reading this book).

Even today, while we sit in front of the TV, stunned by the futuristic vision of the Honda humanoid, wondering when we’ll be able to park one in our garage, more modest devices that meet the criteria of “robot” (which we’ll grapple with in the next chapter) are migrating to every corner of our world. Security systems that read faces, fingerprints, or other biometric input, and then open doors (or not) accordingly, are robots. Highway traffic systems that control signs and redirect traffic based on sensor data are robots. “Smart houses” that sense what’s going on in and around them and take appropriate actions (like turning up the heat when you literally “phone home” from work) are robots. The cruise missiles used by our military are robots. Robots are already everywhere; you just have to know where (and how) to look.

This book is supposed to be about robots, but it’s really about people. It’s about our desire to make computers dance, to extend the reach of our technology and our intellects. At its heart, it’s a how-to, get-dirty-and-gain-some-valuable-experience book, but it’s also a book about how to think about robots. In my travels through the robot kingdom, I’ve learned that (to steal a shopworn street phrase) “it’s all good.” Some despair over the wide chasm between robots in fantasy and robots in reality, some turn their noses up at one arena of robotic development or another, but I’ve come to think of it all in exploratory and evolutionary terms. Humans explore. That’s what we do. That’s who we are. As an explorer, you can’t really fail ’cause it’s the quest that counts.


We’ll look at the many branches of robot evolution and examine their strengths and weaknesses in Chapter 2.

It’s the same with evolution. An evolutionary dead end tells us something about the reasons for the road not taken (and therefore, something about the roads that were). It is with this spirit of openness and respect for all forms of robotic exploration that we’ll set out on our journey into the world of robot building. We’ll start off with some basics and the background (the “how-to-think” part), and then we’ll delve into the honest-to-goodness how to do. If all goes well, you’ll walk away from this book with a righteous knowledge of what robots are, how they work, and how to build ’em. You’ll also be the proud owner of three cool little robots. They still won’t make beds, do laundry, or help your kids with their homework, but at least one of them (Project 3) might be able to bulldoze your dishes off the dining table. Ah...progress.

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