Thursday, December 23, 2010

A short history of the evolution of robots

The heritage of the technology which now runs the world was to put it mildly eclectic, with huge gaps in time and space. Before the first electrician was born, the earliest reference to a "robot" was in ancient China, in the form of an organic robot given by an "artificer" called Yan Shi to King Mu of Zhou around 1000BC. The robot was made of leather and glue with actual human organs, and not entirely surprisingly ceased functioning when the organs were removed. The first Western robot, in the form of a steam powered pigeon, said to be capable of flight, was invented by Archytas of Tarentum in 350BC.

Photo: br1dotcom

Da Vinci, Voltaire, and Vaucanson's duck
Between 1500 and 1800, odd mechanical marvels were springing up all over Europe. Leonardo Da Vinci was the next known robot designer after the ancient period, inventing a mechanical man in knight's armor. John Dee of England invented a flying wooden beetle during the Elizabethan era. Another machine was Vaucanson's "Digesting Duck" in 1739, which was able to annoy real ducks, quack, "eat" grain, and produce fake feces. The duck was even referred to by Voltaire, albeit rather cryptically- "Without the duck of Vaucanson, you have nothing to remind you of the glory of France".

The early computers- 1800
Computers, the other part of the equation for robots, were also developing while these machines were being erratically developed. In the 1800s, Charles Babbage designed an early general purpose computer, called the "Analytical Engine". Englishwoman Ada Lovelace became the world's first computer programmer by writing an algorithm for the machine, and the prophetess of the possibilities of computers.

Enter the name "Robot", and then the real thing
In 1921, Josef Capek, brother of Czech writer Karel Capek, gave the name "robot" to the mechanical men of Karel's play Rossum's Universal Robots. "Robot" actually comes from the Czech word robota, or "servitude". Robots rarely required electrical services prior to the Turtles, being still basically automatons. Real robots, including Japan's writing robot Gakutensoku, were still mechanical and in some cases semi-fraudulent, although the famous Turtle robots were famous for being able to find their recharging point if their power became low.

In 1941, Isaac Asimov created the "Three laws of Robotics", and invented the word Robotics. It was a timely word. Actual computerization in the 1940s in Germany, the UK and America finally created working autonomous systems for real robots able to operate on their own.

Since then, "evolution" has been the key. Motive power, power to weight ratios and balance for bipedal "walking" robots have been major challenges, but the period from the 40s to the 2000s has seen the development of true walking robots, robot animals, robot extinct fish, nursing aid robots and the Mars landers, which are effectively robots on wheels.

Perhaps inevitably, the quirky development of robotic technology has recently produced "companion" robots, invented in America. The robots are designed to be sexual partners, with multiple personalities. Humanity's infatuation with artificial people seems to simply diversify over time. If robots ever take over the world, it may be because someone thinks they should.


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