Rise of the Robots

What began in the world of IT researchers has entered everyday life: artificial intelligence (AI). We outline the milestones of the development and reveal the current fields of research activities.

Artificial intelligence is infiltrating more and more areas of our lives. Photo: YIPPIEHEY/Jacob Eisinger/kombinatrotweis; hudiemm/Getty Images; Montage: Frieser

Artificial intelligence is infiltrating more and more areas of our lives. Photo: YIPPIEHEY/Jacob Eisinger/kombinatrotweis; hudiemm/Getty Images; Montage: Frieser

Voice assistants, robots and self-driving cars – artificial intelligence, or AI for short, is infiltrating more and more areas of our daily lives. How will we divide labor with smart machines? How will our private lives change? More than a half-century of research has been invested in AI, and it has already had considerable effects on our lives. In the future, the consequences will be greater and greater.

What is artificial intelligence?

How do we define “artificial intelligence?” There is not yet a universal definition of the term. Attempts to coin such a definition predominantly originate from the world of programmers and IT researchers. Techniques such as “machine learning” should lead to IT systems that are perceived by humans to exhibit intelligent behavior. According to computer scientists Shane Legg and Marcus Hutter, intelligence can be measured on the ability of a system to achieve defined goals in a wide variety of environments. Psychologists are also involved in the hunt for a definition – after all, it is a responsibility of this discipline to define “intelligence” as such.

The abbreviation AI is already more than 60 years old. It was first introduced by information scientist John McCarthy during the “Dartmouth Conference” research congress. Electrical engineer Arthur Samuel unveiled a program, with which he could practice the board game checkers. Initially, the program knew little more than the rules, until Samuel allowed the computer to play against himself. The machine learned more with every game. After ten hours of training, there came a sensational result: The machine beat its very creator.

“Eventually, computers will think faster than us. Will we be the gods? Will we be the family pets? Or will we be ants that get stepped on? I don’t know about that.”

Steve Wozniak, Apple Co-Founder. Photo: C Flanigan/Getty Images

Steve Wozniak, Apple Co-Founder. Photo: C Flanigan/Getty Images

These successes in the early period generated high expectations. Development stagnated, however, until there was a further breakthrough in 1986. Computer scientist Geoffrey Hinton and his colleagues invented the revolutionary concept of the neural network. Their operating principle was inspired by the human brain’s nerve cells, or neurons. This concept for the training of learning-capable machines breathed life into the topic of AI once again.

In 1997, a further milestone was achieved: The IBM computer Deep Blue defeated the Chess World Champion Garry Kasparov. Some years later, the new technology broke out of the academic circle, and first began influencing the lives of the general population. One of the first mass-produced products with AI functions was the Roomba vacuuming robot, launched by iRobot in 2002.

Thanks to sensors and artificial intelligence, humans and robots can work together without protective barriers. Photo: Monty Rakusen/Getty Images

Thanks to sensors and artificial intelligence, humans and robots can work together without protective barriers. Photo: Monty Rakusen/Getty Images

Man and machine working side by side

Nowadays, artificial intelligence systems are used around the world, in the most varied of fields. One of the most powerful computers on earth is IBM’s Watson supercomputer. Watson is able to organize the working processes of entire factories, and sequence the human genome. The German Cancer Research Institute in Heidelberg, as well as Airbus, Daimler and Evonik all rely on the processing might of this supercomputer.

Since IBM developed Watson, many other businesses have invested massively in the development of AI systems. “One of the biggest developments in Industry 4.0 is the collaboration of human and robot,” says Reinhard Karger, Spokesperson of the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI). “Thanks to a raft of sensors, lightweight robots stop when touched. This permits the machines to work together with people without a protective fence separating them.”

Such a robot is YuMi (a contraction of You and Me), offered by international provider ABB Robotics. With flexible grippers and state-of-the-art sensors, it is designed to work hand in hand with human workers on a shared task. High-tech enterprise Festo, based in Esslingen am Neckar, constructs robots modeled on ants – BionicANTs. “The cooperative behavior of these creatures is replicated in the world of technology using complex control algorithms,” says Dr. Elias Knubben, Director of Corporate Bionic Projects. “The ­BionicANTs communicate with one another and synchronize their actions and movements with the others. Together, the artificial ants create a networked system. This will provide innovative solutions for the factories of tomorrow.”

The robot Robear from Japanese manufacturer Riken supports patients in getting up. Photo: JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images

The robot Robear from Japanese manufacturer Riken supports patients in getting up. Photo: JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images

But the operational field of robots – especially when looking to the future – is far from confined to the world of industry. Healthcare is one sector in which intelligent robots could assist, supporting health professionals in satisfying the increased demand for aged care and medical treatment. This is an area currently dominated by Japanese firms such as Toshiba, Panasonic and Toyota, who are concentrating on the development of humanoid care robots. After all, in addition to independent intelligence and physical ability, this is an area in which external appearance plays a decisive role. The mechatronic bear “Robear” was developed to assist patients in getting up, while the duty of robotic seal “Paro” is to aid those with dementia.

While high costs and questions regarding safety and liability currently stand in the way of the quick implementation of such systems, the European Parliament is already pursuing the topic of robot law. According to draft legislation, the law will also govern robots as “electronic persons” in addition to natural and legal persons. At the end of October 2017, the humanoid robot Sophia – built by the Chinese firm Hanson Robotics – was granted Saudi-Arabian citizenship. This constitutes a first in technical and legal history.

The History of AI

1950: Alan Turing formulates the Turing Test. Photo: dpa Picture Alliance/CPA Media 1956: Arthur Samuel creates the first self-learning program. Photo: IBM 1961: GM installs the first industrial robot series Unimate 1900. Photo: ws collection/Alamy Stock Photo 1969: The first mobile robot, Shakey, sparks media interest. Photo: SRI International 1973: The first humanoid robot Wabot-1 is created at the Waseda Institute in Japan. Photo: Humanoid Robotics Institute/Waseda University 1986: Pioneer Geoffrey Hinton discovers a way to train neural networks. Photo: dpa Picture Alliance/Noah Berger 1988: The first service robot HelpMate begins to work at Danbury Hospital. Photo: Kaluga.2012/cc3.0 1997: The IBM computer Deep Blue beats World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov. Photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images 2000: Honda unveils the advanced humanoid robot Asimo. Photo: Honda 2002: iRobot presents the first autonomous vacuuming robot Roomba. Photo: Douglas McFadd/Getty Images 2011: Apple showcases its new voice assistant "Siri". Photo: AP Photo/Paul Sakuma 2017: Waymo trials the first fully autonomous cars without safety drivers. Photo: dpa Picture Alliance/Andrej Sokolow

You might be also interested in part two of this story:

What About the People?

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