Sat, May 14, 2011
Technology > Technology

Future of robotics: friend or foe?

2011-05-14 03:22:58 GMT2011-05-14 11:22:58(Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

French Nao robots are seen at the 2011 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA 2011) in Shanghai, east China, May 9, 2011. The ICRA 2011 opened in Shanghai on Monday, attracting 1700 participants. The theme of the conference is "Better Robots, Better Life". (Xinhua/Liu Ying)

SHANGHAI, May, 13 (Xinhua) -- Scientists attending a recent high-level conference on robotics agreed that great progress has been made in the field, but strict rules for the safe usage of robots should be implemented.

"Four years ago, if you went into a Chinese factory and said 'robots can help you work,' you would be kicked out. But now, China has a large industrial robot market, along with Japan, the Republic of Korea and the United States," says Li Zexiang, general chair of the 2011 International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA 2011), which concluded Friday in Shanghai.

Chinese robotics researchers have suggested to the government that rules and regulations for robot usage should be created. Professor Wang Tianmiao from the Beihang University (BUAA) told Xinhua about the suggestions during the conference.

Wang says that in the future, it might not be possible for artificial intelligence to take the place of humans in some social roles. However, Wang says that mankind should pay close attention to the possible dangers of advancements in robotics, as the industry is currently undergoing dramatic changes.

The five-day conference, which is organized by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), took place in China for the first time ever since its first session in 1984, which took place in the city of Atlanta in the United States.

Media reports show that Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK) and several Western countries have already drafted rules about the safe use of robots.

German-made robot is displayed at the 2011 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA 2011) in Shanghai, east China, May 9, 2011. The ICRA 2011 opened in Shanghai on Monday, attracting 1700 participants. The theme of the conference is "Better Robots, Better Life". (Xinhua/Liu Ying)

MULTIPLE APPLICATIONS

Many people are aware of the industrial use of robots, but not as many know that robots are also used in disaster relief programs and other fields.

Japan's Tohoku University dispatched six robots to aid in rescue work after a massive earthquake and tsunami jolted the country on March 11. The robots were used to search for victims in the places that were inaccessible for rescue workers.

Satoshi Tadokoro, a professor at Tohoku University and president of the International Rescue System Institute (IRS), says that the robots worked efficiently and helped to prevent possible secondary disasters.

"The Fukushima nuclear crisis has presented a wide range of problems, so we needed to use many types of robotic systems", Satoshi says.

American institutes also dispatched four types of robots to help with the rescue work. Dr. Robin Murphy from Texas A&M University says that the university sent remotely operated vehicles (ROV) to tsunami-hit areas to remove debris and search for bodies.

The use of ROVs in the Japan rescue effort has expanded the scope of use for the vehicles, which were originally designed for underwater exploration, sample collection and photography.

Professor Fumitoshi Matsuno from Japan's Kyoto University says that the ROVs finished their work "beyond expectation" with the help of Japan's self-defense forces.

China has itself made great progress in ROV development and research. A ROV nicknamed "Hai Long," independently developed by Shanghai Jiaotong University, can reach depths of up to 3,500 meters. China's 22nd scientific ocean expedition team successfully completed exploratory work in the South Atlantic with the help of Hai Long.

Robots made in Japan perform for visitors at the 2011 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA 2011) in Shanghai, east China, May 9, 2011. The ICRA 2011 opened in Shanghai on Monday, attracting 1700 participants. The theme of the conference is "Better Robots, Better Life". (Xinhua/Liu Ying)

FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS

In some developed nations, artificial intelligence (AI) is being developed with a focus on mobility and the future possibility of emotional communication between robots and humans.

The ROK government is developing AI systems for use in seven different areas, including defense, education and firefighting. Young-Jo Cho, an expert with the Robot Technology Planning Committee under the ROK Ministry of Knowledge, says that the country aims to become one of the world's top robot production bases by the end of 2018.

Tomomasa Sato, a professor with the University of Tokyo, hopes the Japanese government will continue to increase its budget for robotics research. He believes that the March 11 quake may send Japanese robotics research in a more practical direction, and that the development of Japanese robots may change its focus to public safety.

"It's not only an issue of budgeting, but also of rules and regulations," Tomomasa says. "We have to look for new rules to utilize new technology in the future."

Japan already has several regulations concerning the usage of robots, including one regulation that prohibits some types of robots from being used on public roads.

However, since future robots will be capable of much more than their contemporary counterparts, new rules should be created to ensure their safe usage, says Professor Satoshi Tadokoro.

Wang Tianmiao says that current regulations concerning the usage of robots are largely based on the "Three Laws of Robotics" created by famed science-fiction author Isaac Asimov in his short-story collection "I, Robot." Asimov's laws essentially stated that robots could not be allowed to harm human beings or allow them to come to harm.

"Since different countries have different situations, the details of these regulations should vary as well," says Wang. Satoshi believes that robots used in daily life should be more stringently regulated than those used by the military.

"Regulations are necessary not because robots are strong enough to pose a threat to humans, but because the misuse of these robots may cause harm," says Professor Cao Qixin, deputy director of the Robotics Institute of Shanghai Jiaotong University.

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