In This Issue
Celebrating Manufacturing Technology
March 1, 2005 Volume 35 Issue 1

Digital People in Manufacturing: Making Them and Using Them

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: Sidney Perkowitz

The number of "digital people" (artificial beings and partly artificial beings) is increasing rapidly.

Robots have played an increasingly prominent role in manufacturing for the past 50 years, and about a million industrial units are in use today worldwide. In a parallel development, the number of humans with bionic units, such as cochlear implants and artificial limbs, is also growing. The presence of these “digital people,” a category that includes artificial and partly artificial beings, from mechatronic (mechanical plus electronic) robots to humans with bionic (biological plus electronic) implants, is rapidly increasing in industry and in society as a whole. Digital people represent a new technology that deserves serious attention.

The 1920s play R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by the Czech author Karel Capek introduced the word “robot,” which comes from the Czech word “robota,” meaning forced labor. Capek foresaw the widespread use of robots, as he painted a picture of humanoid units made purely to serve humanity. At least two rudimentary humanoid mechatronic robots were built in the 1920s and 1930s (Elektro, a unit designed by the Westinghouse Corporation, was a hit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair); however, true commercial use of robots began with the invention of a non-humanoid type of industrial robot in 1954. Now, with advances in mechatronics, materials science, artificial intelligence, and other relevant areas, increasingly capable units, some of them humanoid, are becoming available for use in industry, homes, and hostile environments.

The related area of bionics is potentially even more important. The origins of this technology are scattered and diffuse, harking back centuries, and even millennia, to crude prosthetic replacements for missing limbs, such as wooden legs. Bionic technology is now producing sophisticated artificial limbs and bodily organs, as well as devices that connect directly to the neural system or the brain, for example, cochlear implants that restore hearing to the deaf. Bionic additions such as these promise to address important issues for the injured and ill and perhaps someday to enhance human capabilities.

These and other potential results of bionic and robotic technology, however, such as the displacement of human workers, raise complex ethical issues that require careful consideration. Although these technologies are at the beginning stages of development, it is not too early to survey the state of the art and its implications.

Robots for Industry and the Home
The year 2004 marked the 50th anniversary of the patenting of the first industrial robot by George Devol, an engineer. With his partner Joseph Engelberger, Devol began making and selling a one-armed, programmable unit called the UNIMATE. Engelberger envisioned robotic devices as “help[ing] the factory operator in a way that can be compared to business machines as an aid to the office worker.” General Motors (GM) bought its first UNIMATE in 1961, but for a variety of economic and societal reasons, the Japanese were the first to widely use robots in automobile factories. In 1978, however, GM installed an assembly line using a PUMA (programmable universal machine for assembly), and robots began to appear in U.S. industry in substantial numbers.

A typical industrial robot is fixed in position and consists principally of a powerful multi-jointed mechanical arm that is nearly as flexible as a human arm and that can be programmed to carry out intricate manipulations of components large and small. Table 1 shows that Japan still leads in the use of these robotic workers, that roughly one million such units are now operating worldwide, and that global use is increasing. This growth can be expected to continue, if only because of the economic imperative—as the costs of human workers are increasing, those of robotic workers are falling. Robots already form some 10 percent of the workforce in the Japanese, Italian, and German automobile industries, illustrating the potential for robotic labor to supplant humans, with consequent disruptions, especially for older workers.

Assembly-line robots will continue to play an important industrial role, and indications are that ongoing technical advances will also produce robots suitable for nonindustrial applications in the home and in dangerous and demanding environments. These advances include new artificial physical, sensory, and mental capabilities, as illustrated by three particular units designed and built in the last few years: ASIMO (advanced step in innovative mobility), a child-size humanoid robot from the Honda Corporation; QRIO, a two-foot tall humanoid robot created by the Sony Corporation; and KISMET, a robotic humanoid head and face designed and built by robot engineer Cynthia Breazeal at MIT. Together these three units display a range of physical abilities that also draw on artificial sensory capabilities, such as vision, walking, climbing stairs, adjusting gait for different surfaces, avoiding obstacles while walking, recovering from a fall, dancing, carrying objects, and responding to humans by shaking hands, showing facial expressions, and waving goodbye.

These abilities also require a degree of intelligent behavior, defined as behavior that helps an organism survive and thrive by providing effective responses to changing circumstances. According to Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, this adaptive property in humans encompasses seven different types of intelligence: logical-mathematical, linguistic, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal (Gardner, 1999). The latter (intrapersonal) touches on the perplexing issue of whether an artificial brain can be truly conscious of itself as we humans are, a question that is unlikely to be answered in the near future. That question aside, ASIMO, QRIO, and KISMET clearly display the low-level rudiments of intelligent behavior. For instance, they can memorize and recognize human names and faces, and even hold limited conversations.

With advances in mobility and physical versatility, sensing abilities, and intelligence, robots are becoming suitable for home and office use, although many are not humanoid. The most popular examples are robotic pets, such as the artificial dog AIBO made by Sony. Designed purely for entertainment, AIBO was introduced in 1999 and quickly enjoyed brisk sales. The AIBO dogs display sufficient intelligence and manipulative ability to be formed into soccer teams, which roboticists use to study how groups of robots interact. A more practical example is Roomba, a robotic vacuum cleaner that uses intelligent decision making to avoid furniture as it vacuums every square inch of a floor, without human guidance.

The humanoid robots ASIMO and QRIO are not yet on sale for general use, but ASIMO can be rented from Sony as a robot receptionist and guide and has been designed to interact with humans in future applications; and QRIO has clear possibilities for entertainment. Table 2 shows the recent spectacular growth in these and other nonindustrial applications, with the number of units already far outstripping the number of industrial robots. With other developments on the horizon, such as intelligent manipulation of objects by robot hands and fingers (driven by research at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and by the development of surgical robots for delicate medical procedures) and high-speed object recognition and obstacle avoidance (exemplified by projects sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA] and the Daimler Chrysler Corporation), a multitude of new applications may be expected to develop, including many for the military, such as self-guided, intelligent weapons.

Bionic Humans
As robots are becoming more natural by taking on human physical and mental characteristics, humans are becoming more artificial. At present, bionic technology is less well developed than robotic technology, and there seems to be no compilation of worldwide activity in bionics comparable to the summaries for robotics. However, according to one recent estimate from the National Institutes of Health, 8 to 10 percent of the U.S. population—that is, about 25 million people—has artificial parts, from breast implants to coronary stents to prosthetic limbs to cochlear units, suggesting a substantial economic impact. A list of recent highlights in the development of bionic additions, including the growing area of neural (or brain-machine) interfaces, indicates some present and future possibilities for this technology:

  • More than 30,000 cochlear implants are in use, including some placed in deaf children as young as 1 to 2 years of age.
  • Several research laboratories and corporations are pursuing the implantation of electronic devices in the retina or the cortex of the brain to restore sight to the blind.
  • DARPA is funding research in brain-machine interfaces for direct mental control of military aircraft, powered exoskeletons that give soldiers increased strength and mobility, and other applications.
  • Living monkey brains have been used to operate robotic arms, and a sea-lamprey brain has been used to operate a wheeled robotic body. The aim is to make artificial limbs and other devices for humans that function under direct mental control.
  • At least one research group has made it possible for a fully paralyzed person to operate an external device, a computer, by mental control alone.
  • Researchers are developing the “neuron on a chip,” that is, a living neuron grown on a standard electronic computer chip so that the neuron and the chip can directly exchange electrical signals and hence information.

The potential to relieve a variety of human ills and injuries is clear, and the science-fictionish aspiration of actually improving human physical, mental, and even emotional capabilities by artificial additions may be attainable someday.

Ethical and Societal Issues
Despite these potential benefits, robotic and bionic technologies also have troubling aspects. In robotics, replacement of expensive human workers by cheaper robots may loom large in the automobile industry and other applications, such as using intelligent robots as caregivers for the ill and elderly. The latter application raises another fundamental question: do we really want a society where human needs are met by machines, not people?

For bionic humans, ethical issues arise from the use of neural connections and brain-machine interfaces, centered around the question of what it means to be human. Certainly, a person who has a natural limb replaced with an artificial one has not become less human or lost a significant degree of “personhood.” But suppose a majority of organs in an injured person is replaced by artificial components; or, suppose the artificial additions change mental capacity, memory, or personality. Is such a heavily artificial person somehow less than human? Would the established legal, medical, and ethical meanings of personhood, identity, and so on, have to be altered?

We are only in the early stages of understanding brain-machine interfaces and do not grasp all of the potential side effects. Neural implants have been shown to change the brain through its plasticity, that is, the innate ability of neurons to reform the connections among themselves to record new knowledge as the brain learns. Although this could be beneficial—for instance, by enabling a person to incorporate an artificial limb into his or her overall body image—we do not yet know if all such changes would be desirable.

Another, more subtle issue is suggested by some experiences with cochlear implants, which usually restore only partial hearing. Most implantees welcome even this incomplete restoration, but some find themselves uncomfortably suspended in a gray area between two cultures—that of the fully deaf and that of the fully hearing. Hence, psychological and even spiritual factors may prove to be barriers to the development of bionic technology. Finally, the process of surgical implantation can raise medical issues, such as infection and rejection by the body or poorly understood side effects. For instance, in 2003, U.S. government agencies issued a warning that young children with cochlear implants might be at increased risk for meningitis.

For both robotic and bionic technology, projected uses in warfare raise a host of issues. Would self-guided weapons violate the Geneva Conventions? Would a heavy dependence on robotic or bionic military units lead to the perception that wars can be fought at minimal human cost, a potentially destabilizing factor in international affairs? These and other issues have already been discussed at one major conference, the International Symposium on Roboethics, held in 2004 to address the ethical, social, humanitarian, and ecological questions raised by robotic technology (Roboethics, 2004).

Although it will be years before we understand the ultimate technological limits for robots and bionic implants, we can already draw some conclusions:

  • The population of established types of industrial robots has grown eightfold or more in the last 20 years and will have an increasing impact on manufacturing industries.
  • The latest extensions in robotic capabilities offer new opportunities for household and entertainment robots, with enormous growth projected in the near future, and may offer new manufacturing uses.
  • A potentially huge impact will come from medical uses of robots and human-machine hybrids. These include surgical and caretaking units and the replacement, and even enhancement, of human physical and mental abilities.
  • We must begin considering the many ethical challenges and societal changes that would accompany the widespread introduction of robotic and bionic technology.

Any new technology can have both positive and negative outcomes for society. Because robotics and bionics involve simulating, altering, and perhaps even changing the essential nature of humans, they have a special significance. Only the best efforts of everyone involved, from technological and medical experts to political decision makers and ordinary citizens, can ensure that these rapidly evolving areas will bring more good than harm.

Gardner, H. 1999. Intelligence Reframed. New York: Basic Books.
NRC (National Research Council). 1996. Approaches to Robotics in the United States and Japan: Report of a Bilateral Exchange. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. Also available online at:
Roboethics. 2004. The Ethics, Social, Humanitarian, and Ecological Aspects of Robotics. First International Symposium on Roboethics, Sanremo, Italy, January 30–31, 2004. Available online at:
UNECE (United Nations Economic Commission for Europe). World Robotics 2003: Statistics, Market Analysis, Forecasts, Case Studies and Profitability of Robot Investment. ISBN 92-1-101059-04. Geneva: United Nations Publications. Available online at:

TABLE 1 World Population of Industrial Robots for Selected Years (in thousands of units)


bExcluding Japan
Note: Some totals incorporate values for other countries, including USSR/Russia. If estimated uncounted units are included, the total for 2002 and later is thought to exceed 1,000,000 units.
Sources: NRC, 1996; UNECE, 2003.

TABLE 2 World Population of Nonindustrial Robots for Selected Years (in thousands of units)

2002 2006b
Household (vacuum, lawn) 50 500
Professional servicesa 19 49
Entertainment 545 1,500
Total 625 2,200
Value (billions of $) 3.6 6.0

a These include surgical devices, units for underwater explora-tion, surveillance, and hazardous duty, units that assist disabled people, etc.
b Projected
Source: UNECE, 2003.

This paper is based on the author’s book, Digital People: From Bionic Humans to Androids (Joseph Henry Press/National Academies Press, 2004), which is also available online at Interested readers are invited to consult the book for further details, including a full bibliography.

About the Author:Sidney Perkowitz is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Physics at Emory University in Atlanta.