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A brief history of robots

We often tend to frame robots as a negative aspect of modernity.

By definition, a robot is a programmable machine that can carry out a complex series of actions automatically. This flexibility and tireless devotion to the task at hand simply can’t be matched by humans, and it’s easy to see why these machines make certain people fear for their jobs.  

<strong>People tend to have strong opinions</strong> about the future of robots, but these opinions are usually rooted in fear. A quick look at the history of robots shows just how valuable they've been to human development.

While this is a justifiable fear – and is something we’ll need to address on a large scale very soon – it doesn’t reflect the purpose of robots. These machines are supposed to make life easier, and history shows that they consistently have in the past.  

To that end, we’ve put together a quick timeline of the history of robots. Hopefully, you’ll see that a robot uprising is nothing to worry about.

Automaton vs. robot

Much like the history of cellphones, declaring anything as the first product of a technological trend depends entirely on your definition of that trend. For robots, these early ancestors that aren’t technically robots are known as automatons. 

At its most basic, the difference here is that an automaton carries out predetermined actions based on specific instructions. Robots can operate on their own and are programmable, which gives them a level of versatility. Automatons can only perform a limited number of functions based on very precise inputs.

The “Clockwork Prayer” automaton created by Juanelo Turriano sometime in the 1560s is considered to be one of the earliest examples of automaton success. This marvel resembles a 15-inch-tall monk that moves its mouth and arms as if in prayer, all powered by a wound spring.

<strong>King Phillip II of Spain</strong> may have been the impetus for this mechanical monk's creation. The story goes that Phillip's son was sick, and Phillip promised God a miracle in exchange for the miracle of his son's recovery. While we'll never know if this story is completely true, what we do know is that the "Clockwork Prayer" automaton is an impressive early example of automaton technology.

Although this delightful metal man was allegedly meant to fulfill the promise of a miracle from King Phillip II of Spain, it’s just a collection of cams and levers meant to simulate predetermined movements. It’s not programmable to do anything other than some very specific actions, which precludes it from being a robot.

There are many examples of automatons in history, but not all of them were built or survived the ravages of history. Leonardo Da Vinci drew sketches for a mechanical knight that would theoretically be able to move its head, cross its arms, and perform other human functions.

However, the first recorded designs for an automaton date back to 1206, predating Da Vinci by over two centuries. Drafted and developed by polymath Al-Jazari, the floating orchestra featured a four-person ensemble.

<strong>This is a design of the floating musical band</strong> that Al-Jazari created. Although this machine looks nothing like a modern robot, its ability to be programmed to play different songs deserves recognition.

This mechanical band – which is made up of two drummers, a flautist and a harp player – sits atop a rotating drum with pegs connected to levers that generate different musical sounds. As if that weren’t interesting enough, the pegs could be replaced so that the band could play another song. To some, that’s enough to call this machine programmable.

Of course, much of Al-Jazari’s knowledge was lost over the years, and the designers of the first modern robots didn’t study his floating band when working on their own machines. Still, there’s an argument to be made that this device could be considered an early programmable robot.

You can be the judge of whether or not this gorgeous display of human ingenuity is a long-lost ancestor of the bot that built your car. 

1954 – Unimate

Determining the “first” of any technology is clearly a difficult proposition. That said, it’s impossible to deny that Unimate was the first modern industrial robot. The device's purpose was to lift hot pieces of metal from die casting machines and transport them to a different spot. Moving industrially heated metal objects was a dangerous job for a human, and it made sense to leave this operation to an unfeeling machine.<strong>Although this is a later version of Unimate</strong> in operation sometime in the 1980s, the core design originally designed in 1954 is what's important. This design with a versatile arm can still be found in factories and industrial spaces all over the world.   

The inventor George Devol filed a design patent for the robot in 1954, but it wasn’t until 1959 that the prototype was built. Unimate would eventually go on to installations in various General Motors factories, but Devol couldn’t get them to sell very well himself.   

Devol spent a decade attempting to, but it was Engleberger’s efforts and business acumen in the late 1960s that got the world excited about Unimate and finally brought it to industry. For this reason, Engleberger is often referred to as “the Father of Robotics.”

1966 – Shakey  

While Unimate was a mechanical miracle at the time, computer scientists knew that robotics could go well beyond an arm moving hot objects from one place to another.

Charlie Rosen, founder of SRI International’s Artificial Intelligence Center, knew that the next big breakthrough in robotics would be to create a machine that could solve new problems all on its own. Thus, Shakey was born.

Given its name due to how it rattled around the test area, Shakey is able to take in sensory input from its environment and make plans based on it. In an experimental space consisting of rooms with blocks and ramps, Shakey was able to navigate safely, using pattern recognition algorithms to detect corners and object outlines, learning complex tasks as it went. For example, after several days of attempts, the robot learned that, to put a box on a platform, he would need to move a ramp into position first. 

<strong>Here lies Shakey</strong> in its final resting place, the Computer History Museum. While bulky and unwieldy by today's standards, Shakey completely revolutionized robots.

What’s more, the robot was able to take verbal directions. Plain English commands like “go” and “tilt” were translated into predicate calculus, which Shakey was able to understand and react to. A complex request, like “go to room D and push block 9 over to where doorway 4 is,” required a planning system called Stanford Research Institute Problem Solver, or STRIPS.

Shakey never found any practical uses in industry, but that wasn’t this machine’s purpose. Rosen and his team made major breakthroughs in visual analysis, object manipulation, and route finding. Many consider Shakey to be one of the first successes in artificial intelligence.

While Shakey and Unimate completely changed the world, they were only the beginning. Check out our next article as we bring our discussion of robots through the 1970s, into the present, and onto the future.

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