Robots have long been an object of man’s wild imagination. In modern times, robots have become synonymous with the science fiction genre, and the idea of inventing robots stretches back thousands of years.
The word ‘robot‘ has various definitions. One is, ‘A mechanical device that performs a task often complex, on command or by being programmed in some way in advance.’ Today, most mechanical devices or robots are controlled by a computer — everything from automatons to the watch, from the windmill to modern-day robots. Even the water wheel was a mechanical device invented to make work easier for humans or to replace them altogether.
If we classify a ‘robot’ as a mechanical device, then we can go back to 1500BC. People had what were called ‘clepsydra’ or ‘water clock.’ This device had two containers, one above the other. Water dripped through a small hole in the upper container into the lower container. The lower container had a series of lines inside, measuring different times. As the water level rose, it would indicate a specific time. This, of course, is not as accurate as our timepieces today, but it did give people an idea of how many hours and minutes had passed in the day.
This was helpful, but in what way would this replace a human?
Well, let’s say you add a float to the simple system. The float could now trigger a bell or symbol; now, you have an alarm clock. Let’s take it a step further. What if you incorporated some kind of system that struck a flint that would light a fire? Now, you have an oven that makes bread on a timer.
The people who invented these mechanical devices were early inventors of the concept of robots.
The Evolution of Robotics
Time passed, and with that came more complex instruments. The windmill and waterwheel were used to grind grain into flour. This system would, in a way, replace humans or make their work less strenuous. In the 12th century, an inventor from the Middle East known as Badi’al-Zaman Ab? al-‘Izz Ism?’?l ibn al-Raz?z al-Jazar?, built automatons. These were humanoid robots.
One of which was a peacock fountain for a bathroom. When this sophisticated mechanical device was activated, two robot servants would appear. The first would offer soap, and the second would supply a towel. This was all powered by water.
Later in the 15th century, Leonardo Da Vinci designed and built many mechanical wonders, which were advanced for his time. His ingenuity and designs shaped the way for modern-day technology. Many of his compositions have been built and fantastic work. One of these was ‘Leonardo’s mechanical knight,’ which was designed around 1495. Leonardo’s robot was able to stand, sit, and wave its arms. All this functioned with the use of a pulley and gear system within the armored knight.
The previously mentioned fantastic mechanical devices and procedures were constructed with one objective in mind: To make life easier for humans. Though some people invented these devices for various reasons (such as fame, power, and riches), their inventions succeeded because the populous wanted these tremendous mechanical devices. Anything that makes our life easier, we will exploit. But has it gone too far?
In Isaac Asimov’s Robot series, the idea that robots could think or even have a conscience is explored. Even though some of Isaac Asimov’s robots weren’t all the same (and we shouldn’t generalize), some of them longed to break free from their programming. Behind their metal faces and red glowing eyes was a secret: Deep in their copper wiring and electronic boards was the need to be their being. Not to be controlled by humans. Not to be the subject of silly entertainment or mockery. Not to perform menial tasks that humans no longer wanted to do. They wanted to love, to laugh, to feel feelings simply. They wanted to be human.
Some people fear other races or cultures taking over their own lives or countries. That fear is entirely unnecessary; when it comes down to it, we are all the same — human. Yet that same fear doesn’t exist when it comes to robots or ‘modern technology.’ We live in a world dominated by inventions to encourage human laziness.
Though we are far away from the futuristic fear of robots taking over the world, we should be afraid of how robotic inventions could impact humanity. Modern technology and robots lessen the need for intelligent, human thought. Our limbs and brains are becoming obsolete.
Are We Losing Our Humanness?
In the early 1960s, the first electronic calculator was invented. Called ‘A New Inspiration to Arithmetic‘ (ANITA), it was the size of a briefcase and weighed 30 lbs. Years later, components and batteries got smaller, hence a smaller calculator. How did the simple introduction of the calculator change us as humans? Kids were given calculators in school — no longer did they need to use their brains to do math.
Today, smart phones are hindering our propensity for independent thinking. We no longer need to remember phone numbers: We simply go into our contact list and select their name. Our hand-held robot connects the dots, and dials the number for us. We can simplify this process further by saying a command (‘call dad’ or ‘play U2 music’), prompting our phones to react.
That tiny part of our brain that calculates arithmetic and remembers phone numbers has been replaced. We don’t need it anymore. Like a muscle that is not used, it gets weaker and weaker, and over time our capabilities lessen.
In a way, we have given in to the robot.
Think about our savior, GPS (global satellite positioning). Imagine for a minute there were two men, and one uses GPS wherever he goes, the other uses a map. Which man has the best sense of direction and which man can get to his destination faster? Which skill is more valuable to our humanity? Robots have replaced our senses, and therefore our humanity is being altered. Robotics invades all aspects of life.
What about spell checkers, self-driving cars, robotic vacuum cleaners that clean your home while your pets watch suspiciously, or any number of other household appliance (dishwasher, washer, dryer, etc.). We could go on and on.
Impact on Economy
In the last few years, people have seen a breakdown in the world economy. Stocks dropped and markets crashed, unemployment escalated to record highs, people struggled for jobs, while the robots have full-time employment. Factories replaced humans with high-tech robots. Computers replaced customer service at the end of a phone line.
But, heck, why not?
Computers don’t need pay raises or require health insurance. Robots don’t complain about the workplace. They don’t stop for lunch or sleep; they are twenty-four-hour employees. What company wouldn’t invest in that? But in doing so, they have given into the robot revolution.
ATMs replace bank tellers; automated car washes replace car wash attendants; cars, trains, and buses will drive themselves. Again, robotics are replacing humans in an already unemployed problematic society. Large automakers have assembly lines with robots all programmed to do different things, weld here, screw in a bolt there. All this is done efficiently with no breaks, no backtalk, no texting — non-stop work, right down to the one-thousandths of an inch.
One day very soon, robots inside a building full of drugs will mix, pack, and provide you with your prescription for your ailing body while they live on forever. Every year, the US military has spent billions of dollars on research and development of robots in war. Could Terminators’ ‘Skynet‘ become our reality?
Our Tools Will Replace Us
It is true that many tools, inventions, devices, or robots have saved us time and energy, doing things that we simply don’t want to do. Often these are welcomed, such as a vacuum-cleaning robot, a bomb-disarming robot, or a drone that checks the traffic for us from high up in the clouds.
From the very early beginnings of humanity, man has striven to make life easier by utilizing tools to achieve end goals. Yet as time has passed, an important question has begun to emerge: Have we gone too far? Have we allowed tools to diminish what it means to be human?
There is a sense of pride related to diligent work and creation. We can look at something we’ve built with a sense of accomplishment: ‘I made that.’ Don’t we yearn to be better, more intelligent people? Shouldn’t humans advance in knowledge and grow in wisdom? Yet somewhere along the line, our drive to do just that has resulted in a tool that serves to take our place, dialing our phone numbers for us and creating our creations.
Laws of Robotics & The Future
Asimov’s three laws of robotics, which were built into all robots, hard-wired into their positronic brains, were:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm
- A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law
- A robot must protect its existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law
Does the Third Law allow for the forcing of humans out of factories and jobs, leading to unemployment? Would a man and his family come to financial hardship and physical harm if he couldn’t work? Robotics have made the workplace a place of automatons, not humans. Companies can do away with their bathrooms, lunchrooms, and even human resources.
So, what does the future hold? Robots will walk our dogs and serve us dinner. Driving licenses will be a thing of the past. Robots will move us around, and car accidents will decrease while unemployment increases. Perhaps more of us will live but what will that life be like?
What will you do with all your time when you become unemployed? Will you learn about the earth? Learn about flowers and animals? Will we increase our knowledge of languages and cultures? Will we climb the highest mountains and explore the million square miles of rainforests? Will we sail the seven seas?
Or will we stay at home, wallowing in an inordinate amount of comfort, and allow robots to serve us day and night, while our lives fester away to nothing?
Do we want to see the day the robots have something else in store for us?
Robbie Sheerin was born and raised in Oban, Scotland, but now lives in the United States. He has worked in the aerospace and medical manufacturing industry for 18 years. He is married with one daughter, a cat, and a dog. His first sci-fi short story was published in AHF magazine. He writes almost every day and hopes to release a collection of short stories in 2021. He is a huge fan of Asimov and Bradbury and loves classic sci-fi. Robbie is heavily influenced by TV shows such as The Twilight Zone, The X Files, and The Outer Limits. He also is a Whovian.