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I, Robot

"Gloria had a grip about the robot’s neck that would have asphyxiated any creature but one of metal, and was prattling nonsense in half-hysterical frenzy. Robbie’s chrome-steel arms (capable of bending a bar of steel two inches in diameter into a pretzel) wound about the little girl gently and lovingly, and his eyes glowed a deep, deep red." - If you didn't recognized the narrative, it is from Gloria & Robbie's reunion from the touching ending of the Isaac's "I, Robot" first story. If you read "Robbie" before, you are probably, by now, recollecting what actually preceded to this very moment of two persons getting together in this happy ending of the most famous Asimov's short story. But if you never did, I am encouraging you to do so, if nothing else, then for the simple reason that even though it was written some eighty years ago, the premise is still fresh and valid just like it was published yesterday.

The word 'robot' was actually coined couple of decades before 'Robbie' by Čapek brothers, Karel and Josef and was first used in Karel's play 'Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti' (Rossum's Universal Robots). Although, robots in this play was more androids and cyborgs, in fictitious literature not fully mechanical, AI type of automated invention but rather sort of technologically augmented humans or created biological organisms. Nevertheless, the word staid to this day with its root in all Slavic languages, Serbian included. I remember my grandmother often used the word 'rabota' ('robota' in Czech), which, even though, not in use in official Serbian language, it is actually the only possible way to represent the hard work or labor in just one word.

In Sci-fi literature and motion pictures not all robots are equipped with artificial intelligence, emotion chips, sophisticated technology and created to look exactly like we do. Many of them are made just to do hard work like in original Isaac's or Karel's stories but even though they all have one thing in common. Their own personality. Something that make the robot unique and with properties only living organisms have. Believe me or not and if you have vivid imagination or perception to the details of your own surroundings, personality is something even ordinary items can own. Not long ago, when my son was in appropriate three years old age, I bought for him a large helium balloon to play with indoors. At the end of the meter or so long string I hung couple of iron rings to weight just enough for the balloon to float freely in the air. It was fun playing with it, of course, but even more fun was just monitor what it did by its own. Due to invisible draft and air circulation in our flat and slight differences in pressure and temperature in different rooms it was obvious that our 'Balloon Boy', as we called it, never wanted to stay still for a long time and after a while I noticed that it particularly liked the kitchen. No matter where you float it initially - in living room, dining room or hallway after couple of hours it drifted away to its favorite spot and stayed there put. And to do so it had to pass through several corners and doors and to avoid solid items and furniture. Now you tell me, how was our Balloon Boy different from any other home pet? It had a name, it required constant attention (instead of feeding in this case adjusting weights to compensate helium lost), it also had its own favorite spot in the flat, it loved to play and drift, it was cool and it .. well .. eventually died. From my point of view, Balloon Boy was no different than any living pet and with all of regular activities 'he' earned his own personality. Not big one, for sure, but personality it was.

Robbie was designed to serve as a nursemaid but in the end form one young girl perspective, it was a perfect pet or Balloon Boy substitute. He didn't talk but was able to mimic all the personality necessary to be ideal companion for an eight years old Gloria. And he was great listener, something parents nowadays rarely have time or patience to do for their children on daily basis. Robbie was also first robot in Isaac's "I, Robot" masterpiece and surely one in first generations of robots. With later stories and overall Sci-fi genre, within robotics and cybernetics naturally comes artificial intelligence. In this realm, my favorite robot in entire expanse of science fiction is commander Data from "Star Trek: The Next Generation". He has it all and was fully functional self-aware as much as anyone else in the franchise. But we are far away from such achievement. I mean, creating artificial software design to mimic human being within current stage of hardware and software is very much possible. Computers are fast enough to process very detailed response from the surrounding environment. Sensing tools are also matured enough to visually and audibly acquire all the data for an hypothetical humanoid robot to deal with and to be very close to pass Turing test. Simply put, I am convinced that very soon we will have artificial Facebook contacts you can add into your friend lists and communicate with in usual manner and never know that they are not really humans. To be perfectly honest I will not be surprised if they already exists today and use social networks as a perfect beta testing ground.

However, what is still behind rapid development in computer science is power and mechanics. These days Boston Dynamics' Atlas new upgrade was going viral and if you haven't already seen what it can do please took couple of minutes to watch above video. It is amazing what they achieved in only couple of years of development from first 'Petman' bipedal robot initially constructed for testing chemical protection suits. Still, even though walking and handling simple labor is vastly improved, motion and sophistication is yet to explode in some sort of technical breakthrough that would allow continuous operation without need to recharge often and of course to have more human-like motion abilities and be able to do various actions from as sensitive as operating smartphones to as bulky as carrying heavy sacks and boxes. And in the same time to look like one of chess players from the above photo. Or both of them. Until then there will be no fear for some futuristic robot uprising in Boston Dynamics, especially against those test people from the Atlas video.

To conclude this post without mentioning industrial robots would be not really fair. They are among us for years and doing their job in great perfection. Honestly, one of the 'always on' TV channel playing in our living room is 'Discovery Science' and I simply can't get enough of those shows "How It's Made" and "How Do They Do It?" especially with all those automated industrial lines with heavy usage of robots and machines. Cybernetics is one great engineering and it literally expanded exponentially with micro-controllers and industrial software. With a little regret of missing opportunity to pursue career in robotics I remember those couple occasions in school when I participated a competition in building a controllable circuit board with Sinclair ZX Spectrum, amazing one of the first home computers I owned for years back in eighties. It had an extension connector, designed for accessories, with 8 pins fully controllable with its famous PEEK & POKE commands I used to programmatically control electronic relays capable to control flow of heavy electronic AC current.

Now, even though industrial robots are already ready to go to another planet (and couple of them are already sent to Mars and successfully did or still do their jobs), androids are still not on the horizon. Should I dare to predict first commercial humanoid robot in the market? Let me put it this way - human body contains 200+ bones, 600+ skeleton muscles and more than 300 joints. When we reach a scientific breakthrough in using artificial muscles and power system able to operate vast number of joints and bones movements there will be no long before we see first Robbies in hardware stores.

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