The Birth Of The Modern Robot

When Isaac Asmiov was writing I, Robot, the field of robotics was still in its infancy. As he notes in The Complete Robot, as the field began to mature, it started showing signs of conforming to the popular ideas held by science fiction writers about what robotics ought to be. Notions of humanoid robots, the functions that robots would have in domestic settings, even the ethical quandaries that AI ethicists face today were all themes of early sci-fi writers.

The idea of a robot – at least of automata – predates the field of robotics. The idea of an independent automata may have existed as early as the ancient Egyptians Chinese, and Greeks, who attempted to build self-operated machines that resembled animals and humans. Myths of clay golems in Jewish legends and clay giants in Norse legends perpetuated the idea of an artificial being that could mimic the actions of living creatures. A 400 BC myth from Crete spoke of a man of bronze who guarded their island from pirates.

In 1066, the Chinese inventor [Su Song] constructed a water clock consisting of a tower with mechanical features that would chime the hours. The tower had programmable drums with pegs that would bump into levers to operate the percussion instruments. Later, in the 13th century, Muslim scientist [Ismail al-Jazari] created a humanoid waitress that could serve tea to customers. Drinks were stored in a reservoir tank. The drinks would drip from a bucket into a cup, which the waitress could then serve through an open door. Centuries later, [Leonardo da Vinci] would sketch plans for a mechanical knight that would sit up, wave its arms, and move its head.

It wasn’t until 1920, however, that the term robot began being used to describe these automata. The Czech writer [Karel Čapek] published a play titled R.U.R. about artificial bodies without souls, which borrowed their name from the Czech word for peasant slaves (“robota”). The story told of mechanical men working on factory assembly lines who rebelled against their human masters, a recurring storyline in what would become a major sub-genre of science fiction writing.

In 1932, inventor [W. H. Richards] exhibited one of the first humanoid robots at the Model Engineers Society in London. The frame consisted of an aluminum body with eleven electromagnets and a motor powered by a 12 V power source. In 1948, [William Grey Walter] from the Burden Neurological Institute in Bristol created the first complex autonomous robot, based on his theory that the connections between brain cells could give rise to complex behaviors. Elmer and Elsie, the robotic tortoises, were constructed with a phototropic plastic shell that doubled as a bump sensor. The devices showed the interaction between a light sensitive and touch sensitive control mechanism mimicking nerve cells with tactile and visual input. The systems interacted well enough that the tortoises appeared to exhibit behavior when navigating around obstacles.

While there is contention over the exact origins of the field, the notion that analog electronics could simulate brain processes – an idea [Alan Turing] and [John von Neumann] were also famed for entertaining – may have jump-started subsequent robotics research.

Kentucky inventor [George C. Devol] is often credited with creating the first modern robot in 1954, known as Ultimate Unimate. The robot was the first industrial machine, working on a General Motors assembly line. With the help of his business associate [Joseph Engelberger], the pair started the first robot manufacturing company. The job of the robots was to transport die castings from an assembly line and weld the parts onto auto bodies. It was a particularly useful task to automate since the work was especially dangerous for human workers, who could be poisoned by toxic fumes or injured if they weren’t careful.

As far as robotics research goes, the scientific study remains an interdisciplinary branch between mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science. Much of the theory that plays into the field is borrowed from aspects of controls, design, information processing, and other subfields of these branches. Given how wide the applications of robotics can be – from autonomous vehicles to prosthetics to industrial robots – the many branches of robotics span numerous adjacent fields.

Back to Sci-Fi

The most famous laws of robotics were probably those proposed by [Asimov] – the Three Laws of Robotics:

First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

These laws governed the underlying universe behind Asimov’s robot stories, intended as a safety feature for their interactions with humans and one another. Whenever one of his robots would act counter-intuitively, it was often a direct consequence of one of the laws being applied to the situation. While they may have originated as a facet of fiction, they have become incorporated into the study of the ethics of artificial intelligence as well.

As the study of robotics has matured and incorporated more applications of research into artificial intelligence and intelligent agents, the ideas of ethics has become more prominent as a real barrier to further work in the field. While early robots may have been hard-wired to perform certain rote actions, as robots have become more free agents with the ability to select actions based on their optimizations of reaching certain goals, the subtleties of the algorithms used to govern these actions has come more into question. Questions in the ethics of AI tackle ideas from whether artificial general intelligence is possible, whether the machines are inherently dangerous and if there are ways to curb this danger, and whether machines have some semblance of a consciousness and certain rights. The same ideas covered by Black Mirror are very much real problems that today’s philosophers are dealing with solving.

As for the current state of robotics research, opinions range widely depending on who you ask. As one analogy puts it, tasks that are difficult for a human adult – such as quickly identifying differences in a vast database – can be easy for a robot. However, tasks that are easy for a human baby – such as grasping and throwing a ball – can be nearly impossible for robots. Even in rescue work, robots may not be ready to act as the sole responders simply due to deficiencies in their speed, versatility, and ease of use.

The biggest change and future outlook for robotics is probably the level to which autonomous agents will invade our society. With the rise of global opportunities for companies capable of building better state-of-the-art technologies for transportation, manufacturing, medicine, and other high-profit fields, there will only be more robots deployed in roles that were once filled by human workers. We may not be living in a robot dystopia proposed by [Asimov] just yet, but it isn’t just science fiction anymore.

25 thoughts on “The Birth Of The Modern Robot

  1. The first robot was the Unimate, not Ultimate. The company George C. Devol founded was called Unimation.

    Also, Engelberger was his “associate”, not associated.

    My dad worked for Unimation in the early days.

  2. Some of Asimov’s stories are laughable now. He has one where there’s a proofreading robot. You give it a paper manuscript, and it uses its arms to turn each page and the eyes in its head to read it. At least they realized it didn’t need legs.

    A character in the story asks “why can’t you have a computer do this?” Well, to have a computer do it, you’d need highly trained technicians to read the manuscript, convert it to computer code, feed it into the computer, get the proofread result back, then convert the computer’s cryptic output to English. So that’s why they’re using a robot instead!


    1. That’s not so unreasonable, we do now have ‘robots’ (you could call them that) which turn the pages of books and use a camera and then OCR the book. It’s just that we’ve rather shortcut the need for that robot.

      1. Or viewed another way, we got special-purpose machines before we got general-purpose robots. If you had a bot with arms and camera eyes just sitting around, I’m pretty sure that some folks would use it for OCR.

        See number of blinking light projects done with an (X) that could have been done more primitively with a (Y). Substitute robot-with-arms for Raspberry Pi and OCR machine for 555 timer… QED.

        1. Asimov’s scheme is reasonable for OCR. But OCR is for legacy text in books. The story was about new manuscripts. Asimov completely missed word processors. He thought that, even with AI, it would be easier to type on a typewriter and have a robot do OCR, than to type directly into a computer.

          1. He was thinking in a context where physical computer memory was paper punch cards and magnetic tapes. A “word processor” would have been much more cumbersome than writing on paper.

          2. What a total doofus, wrote a short story about 70 years ago and totally failed to predict that word processors would exist about 30 years later (just after the first mouse was invented). /s

          3. Teletype terminals had become common by the 60s the first word processors were around by the late 60s, mouse not required, but that had been invented by then also.

          4. Ooops, should have specified teletype computer terminals, they were terminals for teletype from the late 30s.

            Though, Asimov had the magical positronic brain McGuffin in mind, which was supposedly far more adaptable/capable than early digital computers.

    2. Some authors of that era had a bit more insight. I always thought that Asimov had great ideas but they were just a bit too far out. And his character names were very awkward. Clarke on the other hand: Go read “The Wind From The Sun”. In it, he essentially describes an Arduino.

  3. Heh, I did a presentation like this as a topic I’m interested in for my British Sign Language course a couple of years ago. It’s a very interesting subject. I actually work in robotics now, but at the time I was working in automation.

  4. We cannot agree on a definition of life in general (is a virus alive?), or even in just humans (alive after birth, but coming down the birth canal not alive but not dead); expecting a computational output to arrive at conclusions which would satisfy those laws is simply not thinking.

    The 3 laws were the vehicle to show, much as the demon summoning stories before them, thst no matter how well intentioned a ruleset might be that there is always room to break the rules encoded within their very constraints.

  5. And that was why the creator of Star Trek and Isaac were great friends. Mr. Data is part of that friendship.

    Incidentally Elliot an individual who does gardening and sells insurance and starred in a movie, says “Hello!”.

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