Thinking outside the robot

Massive intergalactic battles with laser-eyed machines. Indestructible humanoid hit men. An enclave of man-made machines intent on taking over the human race. Movies have made these images synonymous with the word “robot.”

In reality, robots are much more helpful — and a bit less sinister. They are being designed to “do jobs humans either don’t want to do, that are too dangerous, too nasty or too repetitive,” says Eric Matson, assistant professor of computer and information technology and director of the College of Technology’s M2M Lab. “What we do in the lab is find real areas where we apply robots to make people’s lives a little easier, a little better.”

Much of the robotics research centers on intelligent design and developing robots that can act autonomously in a variety of settings, including developing wirelessly connected teams of robots that can work together to solve a problem. That’s the focus of the M2M Lab and much of the research being done by Matson and his students.

“A great area of future improvement is in the way robots interact with their environment through intelligent systems,” says Matson. “If you had a disaster and all infrastructure was cut off, we could drop our robot team into an area and within a few minutes have a very high reliability, high throughput network that emergency responders could link into using their laptops or cell phones and be back to a point of being able to communicate.”

Much of Matson’s recent research has centered on a growing relationship with Kyung Hee University in South Korea that has included faculty and student exchanges and partnerships with government and industry. A proposed $2 million grant from the Korean government would integrate Korean firefighting robots with broadband networking and unmanned ground vehicle technology.

As robotics research continues to grow — thanks in part to the U.S. government’s National Robotics Initiative — new applications will arise, including space exploration, healthcare, military, and even additional uses within homes. “We are still a long time away from having human-level capability, especially in the process of general thinking, general problem-solving. Robots are very good at doing very specific tasks. Typically if you have a robot, you program it to do something you want it to do. It doesn’t necessarily think on it’s own, depending on how you define thinking and processing.”

Where do robots fit in society?

While the benefits and application are seemingly endless, some concern has arisen in the areas of trust and ethics, including the issues related to robots mimicking or even replacing human behavior and displacing unskilled workers.

“The study of robotics is often the study of and reflection of human behavior and human intelligence. People are typically fascinated by that,” says Matson. “But there are ethical debates about the difference between man and machine, the whole mind-body problem. There are obviously large philosophical debates about man’s place in the world, in terms of things like religion and faith and interaction with other humans. Do we want to capture the innate miracle that is human people? It will be interesting to see where it goes.”

Matson also recognizes another issue: that developments in robotics technology could eliminate jobs in a variety of industries. “When we think about using technology to replace a human workforce, it can do that in very specific areas. There’s a downside impact of fewer jobs for people. Unless we can create more information technology jobs and get people more education, technology such as robotics is going to displace a lot people from their jobs. Robots don’t complain, they can work 24 hours a day. There are a lot of advantages to using them.”

Robots can bring theory to life

Robotics research has been the ideal setting for bringing together the theory and the hands-on. “Robots just provide a very good real world practical platform to introduce intelligent systems into the real world,” he says. “People are interested to a certain level in theory, but I think people often get very interested in something they can see in the real world, get their hands on, they can visualize a lot better. In most of my classes I actually use hands on physical devices, even to teach programming. I think it’s a better experience. They see not just code running in the screen, but code running a real life device that takes action on its environment and does something tangible.”

As the research continues and more and more uses for robotics are discovered, the field will be an increasingly attractive one for technology graduates, specifically those with skills in information technology. “Studies suggest that 15 years from now, almost all of us will have robots or intelligent systems in our home. All of these tie back to robotic applications. What you do inside the home, farming, automobiles, transportation, health care. These are all areas where there’s a tremendous upside and investment in robotics,” says Matson.

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