As humans step off their home planet into the surrounding solar system and beyond, they do not go alone. Machines have preceded them. And as people go into space, machines will go along. Of all the machines we have used and imagined, none have captured our interest and feelings so strongly as the class of machines called robots. The International Space Station's new Canadarm2 robotic arm grasps a Spacelab pallet while Canadian mission specialist Chris A. Hadfield helps maneuver it into loading position while on a space walk.
But what exactly is meant by the term "robot"? Moreover, how is it decided that it is better to use a robot for a job rather than a human? What are robots like in the early twenty-first century and what they will be like in the future? Will humans ever become more robot-like? What Are Robots?
Let's begin with a bit of speculation on why robots are so interesting to us. Humans have always tried to create "life" from inanimate objects. From literary history, there have been robot-like figures such as Pinocchio and Frankenstein, and from more recent popular culture we have Star Trek's Data and the Terminator. These entities could be good or evil, and were deliberately created in our image. Fictional robots are often capable of moving around the world and having other characteristics of humans. In their depiction, there is frequently some essence that transcends their physical trapping and they may be capable of thinking, feeling, judging, and exploring. It is easy to imagine R2D2 and C3PO, robots from George Lucas's popular movie Star Wars (1977), as companions—even friends. These machines of fiction give robotic researchers goals to build toward. Unfortunately, humans in 2002 do not yet have the capability of creating any of these imagined robots. Nevertheless, we have created machines for space exploration that we do call robots. Examples include the Sojourner robot from the 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission and the robotic arms from the space...
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