Robots have had a presence in science fiction for nearly one hundred years and if you include the idea of machines that could be designed to carry out work in place of humans, then the history of robots spans much further.
It was only in the 20th century, however, that interest in robotics really took flight. In fact, the field developed so rapidly in such a short period of time, that it’s almost comparable to the evolution of an entirely new species.
With advances in computing, particularly in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the potential for robots as truly intelligent and autonomous machines is more real now than it’s ever been before.
We’re about to enter the age of intelligent robotics and this is the story of how we got here.
A (Very) Brief Timeline of Robotics
Robots take the stage
In the science fiction play, writer Karel Čapek first used the term ‘robot’ from the Czech ‘robota’ (translating roughly to ‘forced labor’ or ‘serf worker’) for the artificial humanoids which feature in the script. The name stuck.
Humanoid machines make a public appearance
Created by Westinghouse Electric Corporation, Elektro was a 7 feet tall, 265 lbs humanoid machine designed to carry out simple tasks like walking on command (albeit slowly), speaking up to 700 words using an onboard record player, and smoking (of course). While far from intelligent, Elektro ‘the moto-man’ was a hit with the public and represented one of the earliest examples of the promise of robotics as envisioned at the middle of the 20th century.
Robot ethics and the Three Laws
In his short story Runaround, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov introduced the idea of the Three Laws of Robotics which artificially intelligent machines must abide by. The laws were intended to ensure that the power of autonomous machines is contained and aligned with human values for continual safety against the risks inherent in fields such as AI and advanced robotics. While purely fictional, scientists, philosophers, and other thinkers often refer back to Asimov’s laws as a the foundation for robot ethics and protocol.
“After ‘Runaround’ appeared in the March 1942 issue of Astounding… I never stopped thinking about how minds might work.”
– Marvin Minsky, Artificial Intelligence Researcher
Early steps in object avoidance
A pioneer in robotics and cybernetics, William Grey Walter first developed simple object avoidance machines in the form of his ‘Machina Speculatrix’ or Tortoise Robots in the UK.
Robotics enter the workplace
The Unimate by Kawasaki was the first industrial robot, working on car production of the General Motors assembly line in Ewing Township New Jersey. Unimate revolutionized the role of robots in manufacturing.
The first steps in perception and mobility
Developed by Stanford Research International, ‘Shakey’ the robot can be considered the first robot able to handle both perception and mobility. Utilizing a camera and a series of bump sensors on the body of the machine, Shakey was able to navigate complex environments, albeit slowly and somewhat shakily – hence the name.
Full-scale humanoid robot
Wabot 1 is widely considered to be the first humanoid robot, with the aim of being as human-like as possible with arms, legs, the ability to talk, and a simple vision system. Developed by researchers at Waseda University in Japan, Wabot 1 was a definitive step toward the goal of being human-like, although in all of areas the robot was limited in its abilities. For example, each step took around 45 seconds to complete.
First Electric industrial robot controlled by a microcomputer
IRB 6 was an electric, programmable robot with an impressive (at the time) 16 KB of RAM which could display up to four digits on LEDs. Used primarily for non-demanding tasks, IRB 6 was a major step forward, representing a watershed for easy-to-program robots.
Robotics meets music
Wabot 2 was a piano playing robot built by Waseda University in Tokyo, demonstrating how highly specialized machines could match, and even better, humans at specific tasks. With 10 fingers, two feet, and a visual recognition system that gave it the ability to read a score of music, Wabot 2 was able to play individual notes faster than a human.
Small steps towards natural bipedal walking
Another machine from the minds at Waseda University (although this time in collaboration with tech-firm Hitachi), WHL-11 was the first biped robot to be developed in tandem with industry. WHL-11 stood at around 1.4 meters (4 ft. 7 in.) in height and had 6 degrees of freedom per leg allowing it to walk in an almost dynamic way. While the robot was able to travel over 60 kilometers (37 miles) without any issues, progress was very slow with each stride taking around 10 seconds to complete. Still, what were small – and slow – steps for WHL-11 were a giant leap for robot-kind in the quest for natural two-legged motion.
DARPA Grand Challenge
A major turning point in the development of autonomous vehicles, the DARPA Grand Challenge invited teams to develop robot cars able to compete in a race across the Mojave Desert. The subsequent push for fully automated vehicles has been greatly advanced thanks to the reduced cost of Lidar (Light Detection and Radar) systems which were pioneered in many of the vehicles taking part in the original challenge and have since become cheap enough for widespread use.
DARPA Robotics Challenge and Atlas
During the DARPA Robotics Challenge, one of the entrants is a little known outfit called Boston Dynamics with their two legged humanoid robot Atlas. While Atlas had a difficult time completing the tasks during the initial challenge, within the space of a mere few years, it put other bipedal robots to shame in its ability to walk like a human – even doing backflips, because why not?