The Origins of Robots

We commonly understand a robot as one or more sensors providing data to a processor. The processor compares the data to predefined rule sets or other data streams to observe certain conditions and then takes a physical action. Systems that do everything but move are generally described as artificially intelligent systems. Physical movement makes a robot a robot. Virtually all robots use artificial intelligence, but most artificially intelligent systems aren’t robots. The motion of a robot can be controlled remotely by humans or other “drivers,” or a robot can take actions autonomously based on information it perceives in its environment, sensing and reacting accordingly. Robots can be relatively simple machines: a pool cleaning robot that turns when it senses the water’s surface is one example. Or, they can be robust, semi-intelligent machines that make subtle distinctions to adjust their actions, such as industrial robots that move materials along networks of painted lines, deciding which path is fastest. A robot can also be a wildly sophisticated

system of systems that makes tactical decisions and performs complex actions without human intervention over long periods of time. The Mars rover is an excellent example of this kind of autonomy. Automatic machines in anthropometric forms have captured human imagination for thousands of years. According to a Chinese story from the third century BC, King Mu of the Zhou Dynasty was presented with a wooden machine that was so human-like and alarming that the king threatened the life of the inventor. Centuries later, the Greeks imagined Talos, a forged bronze giant that protected Crete day and night as described in Rhodius’ The Argonautica. During the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci designed, and presumably built, a bronze mechanical knight for his patrons, the Sforzas.

But, it wasn’t until around the turn of the twentieth century that the prevalence of industrial-age automatic machines, electricity, and remote control technologies (one of the first examples being Nicola Tesla’s 1898 radio-controlled boat) ignited the imagination of the masses and gave birth to a new literary genre — science fiction. Channeling societal fear, or simply feeling uneasy about their rapidly changing worlds, many writers created Frankenstein-like plots in which things invariably went wrong and the robots rebelled against their creators.

In 1942 Isaac Asimov, a doctor of biochemistry who was disgusted with the ubiquity of that theme (or perhaps more accurately, who wished to argue against the idea that men pursuing knowledge through robotics would lead to dystopian futures) wrote Runaround. In this short story, Asimov introduced his “Three Laws of Robotics” that defined rules for a cooperative man/robot future:

  • 1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • 2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Asimov believed these ideas would be one of his most enduring contributions. Indeed, he did effectively clear the way for subsequent generations of technically capable kids (and science-minded adults) to imagine and pursue robotics for the good of mankind. With Asimov’s help, and with the conclusion of World War II, creative minds began imagining possibilities and applying technologies in ways that would produce the sensor and processor building blocks of modern robots.

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