18 January 2000

Millennium Man Is Already Here

by Kate Melville

In the last decade the population of robots in North America has nearly doubled. It seems that these 'intelligent machines', are becoming increasingly important in a wide variety of applications ranging from space exploration and surgery to the service industries.

All sorts of interesting facts about robots can be found in the "Handbook of Industrial Robotics", a new book edited by Purdue University's Shimon Nof with contributions from 120 international robotics experts. We highly recommend this new 1400 page publication to our readers, even if only because of the great introduction from everyone's favourite SciFi author, Isaac Asimov. This is a new edition of a publication that first came out over fifteen years ago.

According to Shimon Nof ,"It is interesting to see that the principles we covered in the first edition are still correct, but we know so much more. We are getting to think about coordination and collaboration among machines and multi-robot system, and there is even a section on group behavior of robots, where different kinds of robots can help each other perform certain jobs. The importance of this second edition of the handbook is to summarize where we are today."

"Maybe in 1985 it was just a vision to integrate humans and robots," says Nof, who specializes in "robot ergonomics," or improving the ease and efficiency with which people and robots work together. "Today, it is quite common to have teams that include both robots and people."

Since the first edition robotics has changed significantly, benefiting from advances in technologies that deal with sensors, artificial intelligence, electronic controls, computer vision, virtual reality, nanotechnology and a whole host of other areas.

Some of the most interesting new innovations relate to the emergence of tiny micro and nano robots as well as robots with multiple arms and or legs.

Meanwhile, since the first edition was published community perceptions about robots have changed. "The fear that robots would replace workers has completely disappeared," Nof says. Perhaps this is true, and while the obvious paranoia about robots may have receded over the last decade it has largely been replaced a wider suspicion of technology and change, particularly in science.

"We have many more trained people in robotics now," Nof says. "Some new challenges for robotics researchers are better human-robot collaboration interfaces, robot mobility and navigation in unknown surroundings, and better robot intelligence for services and for public transportation."

If you want a copy it's unlikely your local bookstore will have a copy but try either the publishers (John Wiley & Sons) or Amazon. At a list price of $150 it's not cheap, but it does come with a CD-ROM that includes segments on the history of robotics, descriptions of various robots, along with pictures and videos

The main robotic trend to watch for, more and more. In manufacturing the number of robots per 10,000 manufacturing employees skyrocketed from 1980 to 1996. In Singapore it went from zero to 98, from 8.3 to 265 in Japan, and 3 to 38 in the United States. To put this in perspective there will be an almost 1,000,000 robots by the end of the year 2000, up from only 35,000 in 1982!