Why robots?

The next technological revolution will probably involve automation of more jobs

For millennia, Humans have imagined some form of automated, humanoid machine. Ancient Buddhist texts, dating back 2,000 years, mention bhuta vahana yanta, mechanical humanoids made to guard the high-security chamber King Ajatasatru of Magadha built for the Buddha’s sacred relics. It seems that the emperor Ashoka deactivated this robot-defence system. A Sri Lankan document, the Thupavamsa, first mentioned Ajatasatru’s protective automaton. However, Sri Lanka has definitely not been at the forefront of the adoption of robots. At current rates, only a miniscule proportion of the estimated world industrial robot population of 3.5 million will be in Sri Lanka, although the number of consumer service robots is growing. 

Frankenstein Complex
The Czechoslovak author and playwright Karel Čapek first used the modern term “robot” in his 1920 play R.U.R. (standing for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”), which means “worker” in Czech. Sri Lankans appear to have assumed, incorrectly, that the final “t” is silent, as in the French pronunciation, which is how the word is used in Sinhala. A robot is essentially a machine which can perform complicated human tasks, and which can “think” whilst performing them. A fairly common example is a washing machines using fuzzy logic. An ordinary washing machine goes through a fixed sequence of tasks. However, a fuzzy logic washing machine senses how much washing has been put in and adjusts washing cycle time, water volume and so on, accordingly. It “thinks” like a human. “Robotics”, meaning the science of building robots, was coined by the US science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, in the early 1940s, in the short stories which he later collected in I, Robot. Asimov tried to combat the negative literary attitude towards robots, going back to mediaeval Bohemian Jewish tales about a “golem”, a creature made out of clay which goes mad and destroys everything around it. Stories about robots (including R.U.R. itself) invariably featured humans creating robots, which turned on their creators. Asimov termed this attitude the “Frankenstein Complex”, after Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus. Asimov pointed out that robots were merely tools, and would, like all tools, be equipped with protective devices. Thereby, he prepared the way for the adoption of robots on a massive scale, as part of the automation of production which underlay the tremendous economic growth of the post-Second World War period. 

From Elmer to Drone
The first functional autonomous robots were Elmer and Elsie (Electro Mechanical Robot, Light Sensitive), called “tortoises” by their creator, William Grey Walter, because (as in Alice in Wonderland) “they taught us”. These “tortoises” were mounted on small motor-driven tricycles, equipped with light and contact sensors, and covered by transparent Perspex shells. Walter, a neuroscientist, used them to prove that brains acted the way they did because of the way they were wired, by observing how they reacted to varying stimuli. Certainly, the way they acted made it appear that they were “alive”. The few “killing machines” shown on “robot combat” TV shows, which are true autonomous robots, are descendants of Elmer and Elsie.

Most of the other “killing machines” are in fact remotely-controlled and owe something to Soviet “Lunokhod” moon rovers. These were responses to the US “Surveyor” lunar missions, which preceded the “Apollo” manned missions. The Surveyor spacecraft landed on the moon’s surface and, while stationery, extracted soil samples and tested them. The first Soviet lunar robot was Luna 16, which landed on the surface of the Moon in September 1970, extracted a soil sample and returned it to Earth. This was the first such mission to rely entirely on robotics. Two months later, Luna 17 landed on the Moon, carrying Lunokhod 1 as its payload. This Jules Vernesque, 8-wheel moon buggy was equipped with three panoramic cameras and a navigation camera – which sent images back to the five-person team of controllers, who drove the vehicle remotely. A second Lunokhod vehicle also made it to the Moon, but a third did not. The design was resurrected in 1986 to help seal the meltdown Chernobyl nuclear reactor.

The Lunokhods were ancestors to modern unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), such as the drones developed by Sri Lankan startup Future Drones. They are not true robots, being under human remote control, but they share many of the same technologies.

Industrial robots
Industrial robots are economically the most important. In 2021, factories around the world installed in 517,385 new industrial robots. Of these, 74% were installed in Asia (compared to 70% the previous year). China alone installed 268,195, an increase of 51%. Global robot installations should expand this year by 10% this year and are forecast to increase annually thereafter by 5% or more. The demand for industrial robots has never been higher, signifying a change in the way things will be made in future. In particular, growth has been very high in second-tier industrial powers such as Mexico (61%), Poland (56%), India (51%) and Thailand (36%). Low-paid manual workers in manufacturing will decrease in numbers and importance, as robots and other means of automation take over the production process. However, this process faces obstacles such as a scarcity of electronic chips, rising prices of energy and intermediate goods. It is vital for Sri Lanka to at least begin making the transition. There are many fields in which industrial robots would be useful in this country, which faces a massive shortage of labour, particularly of skilled workers. This is beginning to affect the core areas of the economy, such as plantation crops and non-traditional export crops – peeling cinnamon, for example, is a complex operation, for which experienced hands are in short supply. Other areas, such as welding, painting and cleaning could also benefit from automation, particularly those which call for repetitive actions. In some areas automation has already arrived, in the form of imported devices and equipment. For example, smart rice combine harvesters or textile glue-welding machines. The few start-ups in this area could perhaps lay a foundation for future expansion by designing and building automated devices and internet of things (IOT) devices specifically tailored for Sri Lankan needs, for example in peeling cinnamon, plucking tea or tapping toddy; or in areas unrelated to production, such as elephant-human conflict.

Building a robot?
If you are to build a robot, you need to know quite a lot. A robot has to be given initial instructions, has to be able to sense its environment, respond in terms of deciding on how to carry out a task and has to transform that decision into motion. Even a simple “pick and place” robot has to be programmed, has to locate an object and then has to deploy itself in such a way as to pick that object up and put it down somewhere else. The process is quite complex. A really complicated robot, such as the thought-controlled robot arm developed by the University of Minnesota, needs many fields of knowledge to make it work.

Hence, robotics covers the fields of electronics, instrumentation and control, programming, Boolean and fuzzy logic, applied mathematics, robotic kinematics, pneumatics, hydraulics and so on. There are also specialist fields, for example biorobotics – which deals with robotic limbs, organs and supports, and for which the civil conflict has left thousands of potential users. The University of Moratuwa has courses on robotics. Apart from degree courses, many technical training institutes, such as the Maradana Technical College, the Ceylon-German Technical Training Institute, and the Sri Lanka-German Training Institute, Kilinochchi, offer vocational courses in mechatronics and robotics. They often offer part time courses as well.

By Vinod Moonesinghe

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