For some time now, there has been a prevalent fear of robots as intelligent mechanical beings that will hunt down all members of the human race and take over the world. The idea of domination is anxiously concerned to already be in the minds of artificial intelligence and advanced robots, such as a robot modeled after Philip K. Dick, which jokingly, yet chillingly, stated it would keep humans in a zoo after its kind took over. This portrayal has been almost constant in popular culture, and it all derives from one source. However, the majority of robot technology is far different in the real world, and it is well managed by standardization.
While popularized by authors like Dick, the word “robot” originated in the English language in the 1920 play by Czech Karel Capek, Rossum’s Universal Robots, and he adapted the word from the Old Church Slavonic word, rabota, which means “servitude of forced labor”, essentially “slave”. The usage of robots in the story of this play serves as a metaphor for class issues, since the robots, who are responsible for all labor, take over the world, killing all but one human before they develop the ability to feel and live happily in their new world. Therefore, this, the first incarnation of robots ever, involves the machines killing the entirety of the human race. With this, it is easy to understand why people have feared the possibility of anthropomorphic autonomous robots, since they were initially associated with danger. However, robots in the real world are often far from this representation.
Robotics today makes use of not self-aware humanoid machines, but devices that adapt to their environment thanks to autonomous movement, a quality that allows them to make autonomous decisions. In 2015, robots have been used as drones for imagery, service robots for security and retail, lifestyle robots to clean houses, and social or “real” robots to act as companions. For industrial purposes, according to ISO 8373:2012 – Robots and robotic devices – Vocabulary, a robot is an “automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose manipulator, programmable in three or more axes, which can be either fixed in place or mobile for use in industrial automation applications”. These industrial robots are put to use in assembly lines, where they are often used for construction and design. In addition, service robots, or those that “perform useful tasks for humans or equipment” can also be used for industrial automation applications, such as packaging and assembly.
While robots are much simpler than the ones that we have feared throughout people’s imaginations, they still have the potential to hurt humans if they are not operated properly. ANSI/RIA R15.06-2012 – Industrial Robots and Robot Systems – Safety Requirements details specifications for the safe design and use of robots, but also gives guidelines that ensure the protection of the robots being used. This, along with other standards that serve the robotic industry, was written and published by Robotic Industries Association (RIA), an ANSI-accredited standards developing organization.
Another important consideration when comparing the imagined robots and those in real life is that Capek’s envisioned machines were closer to what would be referred to as “androids” today, being artificially-constructed humans that could do everything that their human templates could do but feel. They also weren’t exactly evil, but were merely trying to rise above their oppressors, something that he used as a representation of issues in the real world. This idea of robots as metaphors or allegories for something in the real world is done by most storytellers who use them, and they are rarely seen as blatantly evil in fiction, something that has become evident in the their real-world public perception. Even the Philip K. Dick robot, which is more human than many other robots due to its “flesh rubber” material makeup, only gave the menacing response that it did because it uses the novels written by its likeness and namesake as a database for pulling information and responses.
What really makes little sense about the fear of robots is that we see them as evil simply because they can be intelligent robots with free will that appear much like us and have similar or better intellect. We view robots as inherently evil because they are almost identical to humans, even though we tend to view humans as being inherently good simply because they are human. In this way, we really should see these androids as intentioned no differently than ourselves. If intelligent humanoid robots are to become a thing in the future, there will need to be difficult decisions made, such as their personhood and whether or not it is identical to that of human beings. However, this problem may be far off, and today we can continue to make use of robots to their helpful capacities.