LAUSANNE — Whether it's a car that drives itself, a flying-saucer-like vacuum that takes care of the dusting while we're at work, or a kitchen assistant that orders food supplies online, the rise of the robots is upon us.
At public health facilities, there are even robots acting as nurses and entertainers. Though various forms of android machines have been around for years, we are now getting a clearer picture of what life with robots will be like in the future.
Scientific researchers are redoubling their efforts, industrial firms are increasing their investments and as a result, today's robots are increasingly effective in a variety of tasks. So effective, in fact, that countless jobs appear to be at risk. It seems every few months, a new study comes out predicting the elimination of entire job sectors, swallowed up by this nimble machinery.
Robot waiters at the China International Equipment Manufacturing Exposition in Harbin on May 22 — Photo: Wang Kai/Xinhua/ZUMA
Unquestionably, the story of robots is one of the most complex and subtle in the history of human innovation, for at least three reasons. First, defining a robot becomes increasingly difficult as technology evolves. Second, there is no objective, agreed-upon moment in time when robots emerged. Finally, for decades robots have been more closely tied to fiction than any other area of engineering,
What is a robot?
To define a robot might seem difficult, if not impossible. The picture of Asimo, Honda's slightly limping humanoid robot, is definitely too reductive.
Nowadays, a robot can be a vacuum, and so work as a street-cleaner, but it can also be a mine-clearer, conduct soil analyzes for agriculture and even perform surgery – well, almost. Today's "bots" are also those millions of software programs performing simultaneous tasks, including spamming or raking up the bowels of the internet. Engineering is fusing artificial intelligence with the most sophisticated information management systems. A machine with human-like arms and legs is nothing more than a variation on the wide-ranging robot spectrum.
But when did robots begin to "live" with humans? In his careful work Robots And Avatars, Jean-Claude Heudin, a specialist in the science of complex systems, makes a reference to Ovid's myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, in which the sculptor fell so deeply in love with his creation that Venus brought her to life. This powerful parable already lays bare the issue of having feelings for a thing without life or emotion. Even in ancient fables, the notion of the "almost human" blends imagery, desire and divine intervention. On that last point, scandal later erupted over the fact that with robots, it was no longer a divinity giving life, but man, who thought of himself as God. Frankenstein's damnation.
Automatons to automobiles
At least the historical thread running through the story of robots is easy to untangle. There were the superb 18-century automatons, such as those created by Jaquet-Droz, true masterpieces of clockwork precision from the Neuchâtel territory. In a 1774 advertisement for an automaton called "La Musicienne," an exhibition hall boasted of the number of tasks the beauty in the blue dress could complete, noting that "her throat rises and falls so regularly that you would think she's breathing." This thirst to sow confusion over what is alive and what is inanimate, or artificial, has never been quenched: Consider the trickery in the case of the Baron of Kempelen's chess-playing robot, which hid a real human being inside.
Jaquet-Droz's "La Musicienne" automaton — Photo: Rama
In the 19th century, automatons became popular with the general public; they demonstrated the genius of clock-making, they became a form of entertainment. It's similar to what happens with today's tech products: In addition to their practical functions, they're filled with amusing extras, gadgets and promises that make consumers mouths water.
A real milestone came in 1954, when two engineers presented the "Unimate," the first industrial robot. With its automated arm, the robot quickly caught the attention of the automotive industry, which relied increasingly on fake humans carrying out single and later multiple tasks. The pioneering firm for these automatons has since been acquired by the Swiss firm Staübli.
After decades of trial and error, the time for robots has finally come.
Valéry Bonneau, who has a degree in automation, published a book a few months ago called My Colleague is a Robot. In it, he reviews today's main types of machines, from the Australian Ladybird to the Robothespian from Los Angeles, which is already the darling of industry events. Bonneau presents new inventions by category, and the fullest section at the moment is the one with personal assistance robots, as well as those used in hospitals.
Weight of cultural history
A single fact is illustrative of the rich cultural history of robots: The very word, "robot," comes from a work of fiction. The Czech writer Karel Capel is always cited as the source, without people knowing his play. But his work is, in fact, the source of the word "robot," which comes from the Czech work robota, meaning "chore."
Written in 1920, Capel's science fiction play, called R.U.R, Rossum's Universal Robots, was an instant success, performed in the major cities of the West. It's worth reading these philosophical dialogues between the robot manufacturers and their machines, who attack them in a rebellion and declare their victory over the universe before considering how they will survive in the long term.
In 1927, the terrible metallic master in Fritz Lang's movie Metropolis illustrated the enslavement of the proletariat. After that, a slew of robot characters, frequently depressed, entered the mainstream.
Robots had been through so much, even long before they entered our apartments.