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From science fiction and academia through assembly lines and telemedicine, robots have become both conceptually and physically ubiquitous. Technologically, robotics technology has advanced dramatically since the time of their namesake introduction in R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a 1920 Czech-language science fiction (which nonetheless was conceptually quite visionary, since the robots it depicted were biological, and therefore essentially synthetic humans) I n which robot was the English version of robota, meaning forced labor, in turn derived from rab, or slave. Today’s virtual and physical robots, however – imbued with artificial intelligence, artificial muscles, vision and pattern recognition, speech recognition and synthesis, sensors and actuators, and increasingly sophisticated interactivity – seem to be approaching those envisioned in Isaac Asimov’s seminal work I, Robot (but still from their human-level-and-beyond artificial intelligence, and certainly nowhere near the living robots envisioned in R.U.R.) That said, however, something’s still glaringly missing – namely, the ability to seamlessly interact with humans and other robots in a spontaneous, natural way that does not rely exclusively on specific preprogrammed behaviors. This is far more difficult than it seems, owing largely to the challenge of computationally emulating evolutionarily-determined perceptually-and emotionally-mediated contextual engagement. Enter Social Robotics: the effort to make robots more…well, sociable.
Social Robotics has its roots in the mid-20th century work of William Grey Walter, a neurophysiologist and roboticist who constructed autonomous electronic robots to demonstrate that complex behavior could arise from robust connectivity between just a few neurons. As robots became more sophisticated and animations more realistic, it was found that our empathy for these human analogues grew with their similarity to ourselves. But there’s a catch: As robots become increasingly humanoid in appearance and behavior past a certain point, a phenomenon known as the uncanny valley emerges.
…continued in my article on PhysOrg:
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