Robotic evolution

Robots were once a technological phenomenon that sparked the what if questions associated with the distant future. Noted as once impossible, science fiction books became the foretellers of today as robots  integrated into our lives almost seamlessly.

Robots were reserved for those who dedicated their careers to science, an untouchable phenomenon for the regular folk. As time moved forward, the gap between human and machine became closer and these once-intangible androids became acceptable backyard projects.

Adam Chan is the president of the University of Toronto Robotics Association . Their goal is to teach people how to build robots through a variety of programs offered by their club, from combat robots to autonomous rovers. Most of their members join without any robotic experience, and are taught everything they need to know through workshops generally led by engineering students.

“We try to remove that initial step that everyone is so afraid of,” said Chan. “Once you get past that step, everything becomes a little easier.”

Chan said they first teach their members how to break down robotics into simpler steps by describing them into subsystems. By understanding it in parts, they are able to understand the logistics and construct from there on.

“If you can see things in its electric perspective, mechanical perspective and from a software perspective, you will soon realize that they all fit each other like a puzzle,” said Chan. “They work in conjunction with one another and once students see that, it’s very easy for them to grasp that to work towards something bigger.”

To give the robots purpose, UTRA strives to enter them into competitions all across North America. They’ve won medals and gained a lot of recognition for their work in the robotics community. UTRA also holds hackathons, a programming competition that requires participants to create robots in a very short time frame.

Chan said that he thinks it’s important for the entire community to be educated about robotics because it benefits everyone in the long run. Technology is available to anybody that wants to work with it and when they see they’re capable of it, the interest intensifies.

“Robotics have become a big thing only because there’s so much accessibility to them in this day and age, I go on the internet and [there are] communities that teach people how to build one,” said Chan. “All this information is on the web and there are so many retailers that allow you to purchase robotic parts – this would not have happened 20 years ago.”

The need for robots has shifted. Originally used for automated manufacturing, they provide a level of precision unmatched by the human hand and are efficient to the industrialist as they can work for long periods of time.

They’ve since entered other industries like medicine, the military, journalism, and even pet-sitting.

Pawly, a Ryerson Digital Media Zone startup, is a robot pet-sitter that helps owners interact with their pets when they are away from home. As a telepresence technology, it enables a virtual reality that can be navigated in real time. It comes with a built-in camera, a microphone and speakers. Pet owners download an app, connect to Wi-Fi, and then drive the robot around the house to be with their animals.

The co-founder and CEO, Mayer Elharar, said that there is an increasing consumer need for robots and Pawly fits that market. After speaking to over a thousand pet owners, he said that he noticed many of them come up with interesting solutions to check up on their furry companions while they’re away, like leaving their Skype on.

“Pets are very much becoming a part of the families, they treat their dogs and cats like their kids and can’t imagine leaving them alone,” said Elharar. “Of course it’s cool and something that people want, but it’s also needed – robots are the future, there is no question about it.”

When it comes to robots replacing human interaction, Elharar said that they are not competing against that, and acknowledges that Pawly is not necessarily the best for the pet.

But pet-sitters can get expensive as some doggy daycare charge over $500 a month. “If you have those funds [to pay for a dog-sitter], I recommend it —  but most of us cannot afford that and what we’re trying to do is to provide a solution.”

As for Artificial Intelligence, it’s now a possibility in robotics. Technology has evolved to where machines are capable of thinking for themselves. They’re programmed to learn, plan, problem-solve and recognize faces, but developers have bigger plans than just that for AI.   

AI is becoming an essential part of the technology industry and is the next level of programming. These types of robots require extensive knowledge engineering. They can only act and react like humans if they have access to an abundant amount of information, plus then be able to relate it all to one another.

“Our intellectual model of the world now is kind of limited to what we can observe and I think artificial intelligence is going to challenge the limitations of this,” said Chan. “[AI is] something that’s more conclusive and not necessarily intuitive, but takes into account more things that are out there.”

Yet, as interesting and exciting as Artificial Intelligence is, there is a general fear that robots may one day outsmart us. Dozens of movies and books have indulged in this idea for decades, entertaining the thought that these man-made machines can cause major destruction.

Chan said that there are obvious dangers when it comes to AI, but people shouldn’t be afraid of it. “As long as we do it right, in such a way that we’re working together, I think that only AI can take us farther into the universe.”

Already, robots have come a long way and what they’ll accomplish in the far future is inconceivable for our minds to even consider. From being a fictional conception to being able to perform heart surgery unsupervised, they’ve exceeded humanoid expectations. Those questions that once pondered the possibilities of robots have changed — as they now ask not what if, but when.

Featured image by Natalia Balcerzak