Robotics is a branch of technology that deals with the design, construction, operation and application of robots and autonomous systems, as well as the computer systems that power such devices, including control, sensory feedback and information processing.
Robots are typically designed as automated machines that can take the place of humans. Most robotic machines can be seen in manufacturing lines, such as widely used in the auto industry. Robots are also utilized to replace humans in dangerous situations. One example would be to send an automated machine into a burning building to hunt for survivors when it may too dangerous to send in firefighters. Another example would be the utilization of a robot by SWAT to search a crime scene for dangerous persons or explosives.
The term robotics is derived from the word robot, which was first introduced by Czech writer Karel Capek in his 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The word robot comes from the Slavic word robota, which means labor. In Capek’s play, it begins in a factory where artificial robotic people (similar to the modern idea of androids) are being built. Capek maintained that the word robot was not of his own origin, noting it actually came from his brother Josef. He explained this in a short letter in reference to an etymology in the Oxford English Dictionary.
According to that dictionary, the word robotics was first used in print by Isaac Asimov in his short story “Liar!,” published in May 1941 in Astounding Science Fiction. Asimov was unaware that he was coining the term, believing that robotics was already referred to as the science and technology of robots. Asimov later wrote that the word robotics was first used in another of his short stories, “Runaround,” published in 1942 in Astounding Science Fiction. However, Oxford English Dictionary referred to “Liar!” as the origination of the term as it was published five months before “Runaround.”
The concept of robotics has actually been around much longer, with evidence of the concept appearing as early as the third century BC.
One of the earliest descriptions of automata appears in the Lie Zi text, telling of a much earlier encounter between King Mu of Zhou (1023-957 BC) and a mechanical engineer known as Yan Shi, who allegedly presented the king with a life-size, human-shaped figure of his mechanical handiwork.
Archytas of Tarentum built a wooden, steam-propelled bird in 420 BCE, which was reportedly able to fly. In 1206 AD, inventor Al-Jazari created the first early humanoid automata. The first designs for a humanoid robot surfaced in 1495, when Leonardo da Vinci created a mechanical knight. In 1898, Nikola Tesla demonstrated the first radio-controlled vessel, the teleautomaton.
Elektro, developed by Westinghouse Electric Corp., became the first humanoid robot to be exhibited to the public, shown at the 1939 and 1940 World’s Fairs. In 1948, Elsie Elmer and William Grey Walter developed the first robots to exhibit biological behavior. George Devol created the first commercial robot, Unimate, in 1956, which became the first installed industrial robot in 1961.
ABB Robot Group introduced the world’s first microcomputer-controlled electric industrial robot, called IRB 6, in 1974. The robot was delivered to a small mechanical engineering company in Sweden. That robot was patented since 1972. Victor Scheinman introduced the first programmable universal manipulation arm in 1975.
Along with robotics, came the concept of artificial intelligence (AI), which is nearly as old in concept as the idea of robotics.
The actual field of AI research, however, did not come into being until 1956 during a conference at Dartmouth College. The attendees of this conference went on to become the leaders of AI research for decades. By the mid-1960s, research in AI was heavily funded by the US Department of Defense and laboratories around the world were later established to work on AI. The advances of the time led Herbert Simon, one of the original Dartmouth conference attendees, to theorize that robotic machines could, within 20 years, take over for man in the workplace.
However, while part of his prophecy was realized, being that robotic machines did become prominent fixtures in factory lines by the 1970s, they lacked true artificial intelligence. In 1974, in response to heavy criticism from Sir James Lighthill and ongoing pressure from Congress, researchers ultimately cut off all exploratory research in AI. The period following this transition was later known as “AI Winter,” a period when funding for AI research was nearly non-existent.
However, in the early 1980s, AI research made a comeback due to the commercial success of expert systems, a form of AI program that simulated the knowledge and analytical skills of human experts. By 1985, the market for AI research reached more than a billion dollars, with Japan leading the way in research and technology. This inspired US and British governments to return to the field of AI research. But the collapse of the Lisp machine market in 1987 once again hurt AI research, leading to an even longer AI Winter period.
In the 1990s, AI research was once again revived and it achieved its greatest successes in the early part of the 21st century, albeit in a behind-the-scenes manner. AI became prominent fixtures in logistics, data mining, medical diagnosis and many other areas in the technology industry. With that success, AI research once again was catapulted into the limelight and new fields were developed revolving around AI and robotic systems.
ROBOTICS BEYOND 2000
In 1997, Carnegie Mellon’s Hans Moravec coined a new term, “Generation Robots,” which was used to describe the level of advancement of robots. Moravec predicted in 1997 that first-generation robots should carry the intelligence of lizards by 2010. First-gen robots would be incapable of learning, however, leading to the rise of second-gen robots, which have the intelligence comparable to that of a mouse and be available by 2020. He went on to say third-gen robots should have the intelligence of monkeys and fourth-gen robots with the intelligence of humans. Moravec predicted human AI in robots would be possible by 2040-2050.
Today, robotics can be broken down into dozens of subfields and includes everything from biomechanics to nanoengineering and artificial intelligence to behavioral science.
Robots have come a long way since the early days of robotic innovation. We now have robots in our workplaces, robots in our homes, and even robots on the International Space Station. And with technological advancements improving every day, it is likely we will see robots that can think, act and evolve on their own someday soon.
Image Credit: Thinkstock.com