When you hear the word robot, do you automatically think of the highly telegenic specimens that feature in popular Hollywood franchises such as Star Wars and Star Trek? Or do the extremely human-like sci-fi characters of RoboCop and the Terminator spring to mind? If so, you’re clearly not alone in making that association: to most people, robots are still works of fiction rather than of science.
And yet robots are popping up more and more these days, both at home and in the workplace. We just don’t see them. Or rather: we don’t always recognize them as such.
It doesn’t help that the robots that are receiving the most attention from the mainstream media are the so-called humanoid
types. Remember AIBO
, Sony’s iconic robot dog? Last year, after production had been discontinued for over a decade, Sony finally launched a fourth generation model. But do you know of anyone who actually owns an AIBO, new or old?
Or take Pepper: the world’s first humanoid robot, designed with the ability to read emotions and aimed among others at the hospitality industry. It was introduced by SoftBank Robotics in 2014 and has been commercially available since 2015. But how many times have you actually been greeted by a Pepper robot, say, at a reception? Receptel, a specialist in reception and office support services, first tested Pepper here in Belgium last year. So it’s fairly safe to assume that this social robot, highly publicised as it may be, still remains in the pilot phase.
Meanwhile robot technologies that are a lot less charismatic and telegenic, but probably hold far more immediate practical value, are becoming ever more mainstream. An obvious example are the many robotic appliances that can be found around the household
these days, ranging from cleaning and vacuum robots to lawnmower robots.
And then there’s the manufacturing industry, where the use of robotics has become increasingly widespread as well. The automotive industry, for example, simply can no longer do without such systems. Spurred on by the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), this industrial use of robots looks destined to grow and expand even more in the coming years.
In the medical field too, robotics is becoming more and more widespread, whether to be used as a tool in surgical operations or to assist patients. And that’s not even taking into account the many military and space robots that are already in use today. Drones are but one well-known example.
Finally, let’s not forget the many robotic applications that are just not that visible – or even plain invisible. Chatbots and recommendation engines come to mind, but also Robotic Process Automation (RPA). For sometimes it just boils down to the difference between tangible hardware and intangible software. You may not be able to see robotic software, but you can surely experience its effects. And so, slowly but surely, science fiction is turned into science fact.