10 Facts You Missed from Robot History Class

Robotics Technology


Greetings, human meatbags. The robot evolution is happening. It’s been underway for a while, a slow mechanic whirr in the distance of our awareness. During that time many mis-understandings have formed. It’s time to arm yourself with some fascinating factoids. Here’s ten facts to help you prepare for the accelerating robot revolution.

1. Where did the term “robot” come from? The word “robot” was first used in 1921 by Czech playwrite Karel Capek in his play RURRossum’s Universal Robots (1921) about the destruction of humanity by robots.

2. Robots are ancient history, over 2,000 years in fact. The history of robotics stretches back 2,400 years. The first robot was a steam-powered “pigeon,” created around 400 to 350 BCE by the ancient Greek mathematician Archytas, known as the father of engineering. He was using the robot to study birds in flight.

For some, the march of progress has been slow compared to the images portrayed in popular science fiction. But now, they are beginning to make the transition from science fiction to science fact. We are starting to see them more frequently in our factories, workplaces, and homes. The distance between the hopes and fears of science fiction and the reality of current technology is beginning to close. Some experts believe we are on the precipice of a massive robotics revolution. Whether you fear robots, love them, or ignore them, some of these experts believe that soon some of us will work with them, be transported by them, perhaps even fall in love with them.

3. Robot law and ethics are forming and entering the mainstream human culture. The Standford Law website has a section known as Cyberlaw and discusses things like robots, war, and ethics. In a world where robots are used to kill in war, survey for law enforcement, and assist in surgery, perhaps it’s a good thing to consider the legal and ethical ramifications of these autonomous, moving machines.

4. Speaking of laws, there’s more than the famous Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics. Isaac Asimov created the famous 3 laws of robotics (“Runaround” Astounding Science Fiction, 1942):

  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 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.

However, he’s not the only one to have created three laws of robotics. According to his book Junkbots, Bugbots, and Bots on Wheels co-written with Dave Hrynkiw, Mark Tilden of Los Alamos National Laboratories explains how modern robotic innovators have moved past some of those classic assumptions. Tilden created his own laws:

 1. A robot must protect its existence at all costs.

2. A robot must obtain and maintain access to a power source.

3. A robot must continually search for better power sources.

He also wrote, “His justification was that given present and foreseeable technology, Asimov’s laws make for incredibly boring robots. Heck, if an Asimovian robot has enough power to push a vacuum cleaner into your toe (assuming if it could even recognize the difference between your toe and the toy lying on the floor), it’d be too nervous to get any practical work done.”

Tilden goes on to create guidelines for roboticists using the acronym B.E.A.M., which stands for: Biology, aka biomimetics and using nature as inspiration for design and evolution; Electronics, the brains of the operation; Aesthetics, clean functional engineering has a beauty all its own; Mechanics, it’s got to move to be a robot and this is the way.

5. Robots are learning to communicate with human language and facial expressions. M.I.T. has had Kismet, a robot learning facial recognition, since the 1990’s and recently a robot has taught itself how to smile using machine learning according to Wired.

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6. Robots are still not that smart and may never have true emotions. Machine learning is powerful technology but it’s not the same as learning to become your evil robot overlord. Even though amazing, the power of machine learning is limited and not the same process as human thought.

“A mathematical framework for consciousness, developed over the last decade by Giulio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, shows that computers cannot handle the complex processes needed to mesh pieces of information together seamlessly,” as written in the Daily Mail. 

That leaves us with a low likelihood of genuine emotional robots in the future. So tuck away those fears of nightmarish images of Skynet and Hal 9000 for a while. That’s good news too, because they are coming to live with us.

7. The robots are coming to live with us! They are coming to help us and assist our elderly. Heck, they are already driving across the country by themselves, doing surgery, exploring Mars, why not help with the laundry, distribution of medicine, and cyber-nursing? The first robot designed for co-habitation with humans as an assistant and companion is heading our way. An article from the Daily Mail describes Pepper the robot, who can determine emotions in humans using its emotional engine and cloud-based artificial intelligence. It’s going into mass production and sells for 198,000 yen (£1,130 or $1,900).

8. Robots are learning to heal and adapt like animals after injury. The paper “Robots That Can Adapt Like Animals,” published in Nature, 2015, shows the Intelligent Trial and Error Algorithm. The following video demonstrates the ability of two different robots to adapt to injuries. A robot hexapod learns to keep walking despite broken limbs and a robotic arm perseveres by placing objects precisely despite broken motors.

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9. Robots may someday be one of our children’s first teachers. Despite their low/non-existent level of consciousness, they can fool humans with programmed social interactions that tickle our human sense of empathy. Daniel H. Wilson, the New York Times best-selling author of Robopocalypse, wrote in a recent Slate article,

Looking ahead, future generations may learn their social skills from robots in the first place. The cute yellow Keepon robot from Carnegie Mellon University has shown the ability to facilitate social interactions with autistic children. Morphy, a robot at the University of Washington, happily teaches gestures to children through demonstrations. With infinite patience and zero judgment, new classes of social robot are in development to offer the ultimate low-risk social tutor to human beings.

10. The pace of robot evolution is accelerating at an unprecedented rate. It has taken 2,400 years to move from a steam powered pigeon to Unimate, the first industrial modern programmable robot in 1961. An article in Cyberneticzoo describes how back in the early 1960’s General Motors created a factory robot to repeatedly move pieces of hot metal. In a relatively short span compared to animal evolution, we’ve moved from simple automated machines to robots that simulate laughter and conversation.

The future of robotics is bright and full of potential. They are becoming humankind’s most powerful tool. Robots are at the convergence of technology, communication, engineering, and computing. Soon, they will be changing everything from how we do mundane chores in our day to day lives to altering the very course of human history. The robots have arrived!

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Theron is an educator, business owner, writer, and consultant working within Springfield, MO and the Ozarks community. He enjoys making and building with his 11 year old son and likes to read and write about science, technology, education, sci fi, martial arts, and philosophy.

View more articles by Theron Sturgess


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