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Wired Hands - A Brief Look At Robotics

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564 words
Science & Nature

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Two years ago, the Chrysler corporation completely gutted its Windsor,
Ontario, car assembly plant and within six weeks had installed an entirely
new factory inside the building. It was a marvel of engineering. When it
came time to go to work, a whole new work force marched onto the assembly
line. There on opening day was a crew of 150 industrial robots.

Industrial robots don't look anything like the androids from sci-fi books
and movies. They don't act like the evil Daleks or a fusspot C-3P0. If
anything, the industrial robots toiling on the Chrysler line resemble
elegant swans or baby brontosauruses with their fat, squat bodies, long
arched necks and small heads. An industrial robot is essentially a long
manipulator arm that holds tools such as welding guns or motorized
screwdrivers or grippers for picking up objects.

The robots working at Chrysler and in numerous other modern factories are
extremely adept at performing highly specialized tasks - one robot may
spray paint car parts while another does spots welds while another pours
radioactive chemicals. Robots are ideal workers: they never get bored and
they work around the clock. What's even more important, they're flexible.
By altering its programming you can instruct a robot to take on different
tasks. This is largely what sets robots apart from other machines; try as
you might you can't make your washing machine do the dishes. Although some
critics complain that robots are stealing much-needed jobs away from people,
so far they've been given only the dreariest, dirtiest, most soul-
destroying work.

The word robot is Slav in origin and is related to the words for work and
worker. Robots first appeared in a play, Rossum's Universal Robots,
written in 1920 by the Czech playwright, Karel Capek. The play tells of an
engineer who designs man-like machines that have no human weakness and
become immensely popular. However, when the robots are used for war they
rebel against their human masters.

Though industrial robots do dull, dehumanizing work, they are nevertheless
a delight to watch as they crane their long necks, swivel their heads and
poke about the area where they work. They satisfy "that vague longing to
see the human body reflected in a machine, to see a living function
translated into mechanical parts", as one writer has said.

Just as much fun are the numerous "personal" robots now on the market, the
most popular of which is HERO, manufactured by Heathkit. Looking like a
plastic step-stool on wheels, HERO can lift objects with its one clawed arm
and utter computer-synthesized speech. There's Hubot, too, which comes
with a television screen face, flashing lights and a computer keyboard that
pulls out from its stomach. Hubot moves at a pace of 30 cm per second and
can function as a burglar alarm and a wake up service. Several years ago,
the swank department store Neiman-Marcus sold a robot pet, named Wires.

When you boil all the feathers out of the hype, HERO, Hubot, Wires et. al.
are really just super toys. You may dream of living like a slothful sultan<...

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