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History, Types Of Automation, The Role Of Computers In Automation, Applications, The Human Impact Of AutomationIn the home

Automation is the use of scientific and technological principles in the manufacture of machines that take over work normally done by humans. This definition has been disputed by professional scientists and engineers, but in any case, the term is derived from the longer term automatization or from the phrase automatic operation. Delmar S. Harder, a plant manager for General Motors, is credited with first having used the term in 1935.

Closed-loop machines

Closed-loop machines are devices capable of responding to new instructions at some point in their operation. The instructions may come from the operation being performed itself or from a human operator. The ability of a machine to change its operation based on new information is known as feedback. One example of a closed-loop operation is the machine used in the manufacture of paper. Paper is formed when a suspension of pulpy fibers in water is emptied onto a conveyer belt whose surface is a sieve. Water drains out of the suspension, leaving the pulp on the belt. As the pulp dries, paper is formed. The rate at which the pulpy suspension is added to the conveyer belt can be automatically controlled by a machine. A sensing device at the end of the conveyor belt is capable of measuring the thickness of the paper and reporting back to the pouring machine on the condition of the product. If the paper becomes too thick, the sensor can tell the pouring machine to slow the rate at which pulpy suspension is added to the belt. If the paper becomes too thin, the sensor can tell the machine to increase the rate at which the raw material is added to the conveyor belt.

Many types of closed-loop machines exist, such as the papermaking machine. Some contain sensors, but are unable to make necessary adjustments on their own. Instead, sensor readings are sent to human operators who monitor the machine's operation and input any changes it may need to make in its functioning. Other closed-loop machines contain feedback mechanisms, like the papermaking machine described above. The results of the operation determine what changes, if any, the machine has to make

Still other closed-loop machines have feedforward mechanisms. That is, the first step they perform is to examine the raw materials that come to them and then decide what operations to perform. Letter-sorting machines are of this type. The first step such a machine takes in sorting letters is to read the zip code on the address and then send the letter to the appropriate sub-system.

Artificial intelligence

The availability of computers has also made possible a revolution in the most advanced of all forms of automation, operations that are designed to replicate human thought processes. An automated machine is said to be "thinking" if the term is used for only the simplest of mental processes: "Should I do A or B," for example. The enormous capability of a computer, however, makes it possible for a machine to analyze many more options, compare options with each other, consider possible outcomes for various options, and perform basic reasoning and problem-solving steps not contained within the ma chine's programmed memory. At this point, the automated machine is approaching the types of mental functions normally associated with human beings, and is therefore said to have artificial intelligence.

If not quite human-level intelligence, at least animal-level. For example, researchers at Genobyte, a company in Boulder, CO, developed Robokoneko, a robot kitten (ko=child, neko=cat, in Japanese). The cat's brain, the Cellular Automata Machine (CAM) designed by Hugo de Garis of Advanced Telecommunications research (Kyoto, Japan), contains nearly 40 million artificial neurons. The CAM-Brain's neurons are real electronic devices, rather than the software simulations used in most artificial intelligence research. The neural net circuit modules, with a maximum of 1,000 neurons each, are evolved at speeds of less than a second using a special computer chip, called a field programmable gate array (FPGA). Researchers hope the CAM-Brain will, for the first time, allow a robot to interact with stimuli in its environment to develop the sort of intelligence seen in animals, and that it will allow the kitten to walk, turn, jump, arch its back, and sit up.

There has been a lot of talk about the "automated home" where everything in the house is networked and controlled via the computer through digital technology. Experts predict that eventually a homeowner will be able to set the thermostat, start the oven, and program a DVD player from the office or the home study thanks to computers.

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