Inside the Robotics Lab: Are the rumors true?

Christoph Birkholz
March 14 2016

A few weeks ago I attempted a brief street survey to get an idea of the general public’s take on robotics. I noticed two things: 1) Robotics is a seemingly misunderstood field. 2) The average person has no idea what was happening inside a robotics lab.

After compiling the four most common responses, I decided to speak to Professor Roland Siegwart, head of the Autonomous Systems Lab at ZTH, to get his take on the public perception of robotics. Here’s what I discovered from our conversation.

Robotics is just human looking robots.  Not really. While robots can be human like, most are designed in a manner most appropriate for their function.  Autonomous cars, drones, vacuums, and lawnmowers  are all commonly used robots defined by their functionality.  They use different sensors to perceive and understand their environment, develop a course of action,  and execute it.

Looks cool but I doubt it’s useful. Oh contraire! Autonomous Robots are gradually appearing in our daily environments. For example, mobile robotic technology is already being used to enhance existing systems – like making cars safer or to guiding people through cities. “Soft” robots are currently being developed that will change the way we do work. Expect robots to take on dangerous jobs like mining or physically demanding jobs in construction. They could even be used to make farming more efficient and sustainable.

 AI is a threat to human life. Nope. Artificial Intelligence (AI)  is very far from having the intelligence and creativity of human beings. It helps robots to learn through their experiences and make appropriate decisions. AI helps us to sort and classify information faster and more precisely. It is meant to complement human capacities not to threaten them.  

Nothing is getting done in a timely fashion. Things are definitely happening in the field.  We already see robots being used in our daily lives and this trend will continue. While we may never materialize a robot that can perform all the daily functions of a human, we can expect robots to continue to share our environment and make our lives easier.