A Brief History of Robots

A robot can be defined as a programable, self controlled device consisting of electronic, electrical, or mechanical units. The notion of robots or robot-like automates can be traced back to medieval times. Although people of that era didn’t have a term to describe what we would eventually call a robot, they were nevertheless imagining mechanisms that could perform human like tasks. As early as 270 BC an ancient engineer named Ctesibus made organs and water clocks with moveable figures. In medieval times, automatons, human-like figures run by hidden mechanisms, were used to impress peasant worshipers in church into believing in a higher power.

The automatons, like the “Clock Jack”, created the illusion of self-motion (moving without assistance). The “Clock Jack” was a mechanical figure that could strike time on a bell with its axe. This technology was virtually unheard of in the 13th century. By the 18th century, miniature automatons became more popular as toys for the very rich. They were made to look and move like humans or small animals. Automatons like “The Pretty Musician”, built around 1890, were able to turn their head from side to side while playing an instrument with their hands and keeping time with their feet.

However, it is literature where human kinds vivid imagination has often reflected our fascination with the idea of creating artificial life. In 1818, Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein, a story about the construction of a human-like creature. For Shelly, a robot looked like man but had the ability to function like a machine. It was built of human components, which could be held together by nuts and bolts. Shelly also thought that a robot had to be bigger that a regular person and had to have super strength.

In 1921, Karel Capek, a czech playwright came up with an intelligent, artificially created person, which he called “robot. ” The word “robot” is czech for worker, slave, servant or forced labor and was gradually incorporated into the English language without being translated. Karel’s play was entitled “Rossum’s Universal Robots. ” The theme of the play was robots controlling humans in society. Although he introduced the idea of robots, Karl Capek was skeptical about how much of an impact robots could have. He rejected all suggestions that a robot could ever replace a human being, or have feelings

such as love or rebellion. While the concept of a robot has been around for a very long time, it wasn’t until the 1940’s that the modern day robot was born, with the arrival of computers. The term robotics refers to the study and use of robots; it came about in 1941 and was first adopted by Issac Asimov, a scientist and writer. One of the first robots Asimov wrote about was a robo-therapist. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, Joseph Weizembaum, wrote the Eliza program in 1966, a modern counterpart to Asimov’s fictional character.

Weizenbaum initially programed Eliza with 240 lines of code to simulate a psychotherapist. The program answered questions with questions. Asimov created the four laws of robot behavior, cyber laws all robots had to obey and a fundamental part of positronic robotic engineering. The Isaac Asimov FAQ states, “Asimov claimed that the laws were originated by John w. Campbell in a conversation they had on December 23, 1940. Campbell in turn maintained that he picked them out of Asimov’s stories and discussions, and that his role was merely to state them explicitly.

The first story to explicitly state the three laws was “Runaround”, which appeared in the March 1942 issue of “Astounding Science Fiction. ” Unlike the three laws, however, the Zeroth law is not a fundamental part of positronic robotic engineering, is not a part of all positronic robots, and, in fact, requires a very sophisticated robot to even accept it. ” Law Zeroth: A robot may not injure humanity, or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm. Law One: A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm, unless this would violate a higher order law.

Law Two: A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with a higher order law. Law Three: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with a higher order law. An early example of robot technology, Grey Walter’s “Machina Speculatrix” of the 1940’s, was recently restored to its working glory after being lost for some years. Walters “Machina” were small robots that looked like turtles. The restored cyber turtles are freewheeling and light-seeking creatures, propelled by two small electric motors.

They roam in any direction with sensor-contacts to avoid obstacles. A photoelectric cell mounted on the steering column helps the turtles search and aim toward the light. After the technology explosion during WWII, in 1956, a historic meeting occurs between George C. Devol, a successful inventor and entrepreneur, and engineer Joseph F. Engelberger. Over cocktails the two discussed the writings of Isaac Asimov. Together they made a serious and commercially successful effort to develop a real, working robot. They persuaded Norman Schafler of Condec Corporation in Danbury that they had the basis of a commercial success.

Engelberger started a manufacturing company “Univation”, which stood for Universal Automation, as so the first commercial company to make robots was formed. Devol wrote the necessary patents. Their first robot was nicknamed the “Unimate. ” As a result of these events, Engelberger has been called the “Father of Robotics. ” The first Unimate was installed at a General Motors plant to work with heated die-casting machines. In fact, most Unimates were sold to extract die-castings from die-casting machines and to perform spot welding on auto bodies, both tasks being particularly hateful jobs for people.

With the automobile industry in full expansion during the 1950’s and 1060’s, industrial robots were employed to help factory operators. Industrial robots do not have the imaginative, human-like appearance that we have been dreaming of throughout the ages. They are computer-controlled manipulators, like arms and hands, which can weld or spray paint cars as they roll down an assembly line. In fact, industrial robots are so unlike the conception of robots held in the past that you might not recognize one. In 1963 the first artificial robotic arm to be controlled by a computer was designed.

“The Rancho Arm” was designed as a tool for the handicapped. Its six joints gave it the flexibility of a human arm. Through the rest of the 1960’s several other breakthroughs which effected the robotic field came to be. In 1965 “DENDRAL” was the first expert system or program designed to execute the accumulated knowledge of subject experts. In 1968 the octopus-like tentacle arm was developed by Marvin Minsky, followed by the Stanford Arm in 1969, which was the first electrically powered, computer controlled robot arm. In 1970, “Shakey” was introduced as the first mobile robot controlled by artificial intelligence.

It was produced by SRI International and was capable of navigating highly structured indoor environments. The Stanford Cart was the first to attempt natural outdoor scenes in the late 1970’s. In 1979 the Stanford Cart crossed a chair filled room without human assistance. The cart had a TV camera mounted on a rail which took pictures from multiple angles and relayed them to a computer. The computer analyzed the distance between the cart and the obstacles. From that time there has been a proliferation of work in autonomous driving machines that cruise at highway speeds and navigate outdoor terrains in commercial applications.

The Automobile Industry created the demand for robotic technology. The benefits to the industry include improved management control and productivity and consistently high quality products. Industrial robots can work night and day tirelessly on an assembly line without a loss in performance. Consequently, they can greatly reduce the cost of manufactured goods. As a result of these industrial benefits, countries that effectively use robots in their industries will have an economic advantage on world market.

Robot technology has been around in human kinds vivid imagination since the dawn of man. People have dreamed of machines with the capabilities of a man and sometimes so much more. It is only recently that we have begun to tap into these technologies, but the rapid rate of discovery leads me to believe that we are not far from the day when robots may walk among us as commonly as people. The day when all dangerous or hated jobs are performed by machines not people. The day when human kind will have reached its long strived for goal of creating total artificial intelligence.