Artificial intelligence marked its existence with the rise of the fourth industrial revolution. Since then, technology and robotics have advanced beyond the early inventors. In 1942, American author, Isaac Asimov, set out his three laws for robotics which according to Techworld were: “a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the first law. A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.” The problem was that the laws were fictional, set as pivotal concepts for the books he wrote, and another problem was that they were written in literal English, so no technology or coding method could replicate and program Asimov’s laws inside a machine.

The first modern robots as we know them were created in the early 1950’s by George C. Devol, an inventor from Louisville, Kentucky. Despite not being successful in selling his product; in the 1960’s a businessman and engineer, Joseph Engleberger, acquired Devol’s robot patent and was able to modify it into an industrial robot and marketed the first industrial robot called Unimate. The robot was a hydraulic manipulator arm that was responsible for taking die-casting machines and performed welding on auto bodies; a task found unpleasant and dangerous for human beings. This initiation helped to build more industrial robots that could complete monotonous, risky and strenuous tasks. By the late 1960’s, the first ChatBot, called Eliza, was developed. Techworld says “the program could carry out conversations via text by following a ‘script’ that directed it on how to respond.”

“a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm…”

In 2000, the company Honda released an iconic humanoid robot that could understand voice commands, gestures and learned to engage with its surroundings and by 2015, the ‘wise-men’ puzzle quiz revealed how robots demonstrated a certain level of self- awareness amongst each other. The fourth industrial revolution has now created a society in which robotics and artificial intelligence are changing the workspace and how people live, with the level of consciousness robots have.

According to the World Economic Forum, “the fourth industrial revolution is about more than just technology-driven change; it is an opportunity to help people, including leaders, policy-makers and people from all income groups and nations, to harness converging technologies in order to create an inclusive human-centred future.” In South Africa, the first humanoid, Pepper, proved the abundant capabilities artificial intelligence has. Pepper arrived in South Africa in 2018.

Pepper was originally created by Aldebaran with funding from SoftBank in France and is available at various companies in South Africa, including, Nedbank and Vodacom. Its purpose is to interact with humans and has the ability to recognize faces and basic human emotions. Pepper’s structure and tasks differ from those established in the 1960s for heavy-duty work; rather it has a lighter and humanly physique to help in retail stores and allow companies to rely on it for digital solutions. According to an article by News24, “They are also able to place orders and capture delivery details while navigating the store.”

“the fourth industrial revolution is about more than just technology-driven change; it is an opportunity to help people…”

In keeping in line with the fourth industrial revolution, UP’s library employed the first-ever robot ever known to any university in Africa. Libby, robot librarian weighs 19kg and is 90 cm tall, a height suitable for interacting with visitors in wheelchairs. According to the UP’s library website “Libby started ‘work’ at UP’s Merensky Library on the Hatfield Campus on 28 May 2019 and has been interacting with patrons by providing guidance, answering questions, conducting surveys and displaying marketing videos.”

According to UP, Libby has an array of over 60 sensors, cameras and software integrations that enable her to receive and administer orders and requests. “Libby is connected to the online cloud via WIFI, which enables her to send information back and forth so she can answer queries or process data from the surveys she is able to carry out”, the UP website reveals. The future of robotics lies in the quest to discovering man’s ability to program a fully capable, non-destructive robot. A second factor is the costs for creating or exporting such machines as News24 states “…it’s not cheap to have a robot […].”

Presently, artificial intelligence is based on data collection and creates more productive and efficient working environments. According to News 24, “In Africa, robotics has a long way to go with only 1% of the world’s robots in the continent, compared to about 30% in Japan.” In a Forbes article in 2018, research showed that 60% of British people believed there will be a robot in every household in 50 years. Furthermore, 27% per cent of the people believed that having a robot in their homes would save them at least two hours of chores every day. While 13% felt that if they had a robot companion, they would never feel lonely again. Although co-existing with robots may seem far in the future, the possibilities appear endless.

Mahmooda Milanzie

Illustration: Giovanna Janos