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A Brief History Of Robots

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A robot can be defined as a programable, self controlled device consisting of electronic,

electrical, or mechanical units. The notion of robots or robot-like automates can be traced

back to medieval times. Although people of that era didn't have a term to describe what we

would eventually call a robot, they were nevertheless imagining mechanisms that could

perform human like tasks.

As early as 270 BC an ancient engineer named Ctesibus made organs and water clocks with

moveable figures. In medieval times, automatons, human-like figures run by hidden

mechanisms, were used to impress peasant worshipers in church into believing in a higher

power. The automatons, like the "Clock Jack", created the illusion of self-motion (moving

without assistance). The "Clock Jack" was a mechanical figure that could strike time on a

bell with its axe. This technology was virtually unheard of in the 13th century.

By the 18th century, miniature automatons became more popular as toys for the very rich.

They were made to look and move like humans or small animals. Automatons like "The

Pretty Musician", built around 1890, were able to turn their head from side to side while

playing an instrument with their hands and keeping time with their feet. However, it is

literature where human kinds vivid imagination has often reflected our fascination with the

idea of creating artificial life.

In 1818, Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein, a story about the construction of a human-like

creature. For Shelly, a robot looked like man but had the ability to function like a machine. It was built of human components, which could be held together by nuts and bolts. Shelly also

thought that a robot had to be bigger that a regular person and had to have super strength.

In 1921, Karel Capek, a czech playwright came up with an intelligent, artificially created

person, which he called "robot." The word "robot" is czech for worker, slave, servant or

forced labor and was gradually incorporated into the English language without being

translated. Karel's play was entitled "Rossum's Universal Robots." The theme of the play

was robots controlling humans in society. Although he introduced the idea of robots, Karl

Capek was skeptical about how much of an impact robots could have. He rejected all

suggestions that a robot could ever replace a human being, or have feelings such as love or


While the concept of a robot has been around for a very long time, it wasn't until the 1940's

that the modern day robot was born, with the arrival of computers. The term robotics refers to

the study and use of robots; it came about in 1941 and was first adopted by Issac Asimov, a

scientist and writer. One of the first robots Asimov wrote about was a robo-therapist. A

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, Joseph Weizembaum, wrote the Eliza

program in 1966, a modern counterpart to Asimov's fictional character. Weizenbaum

initially programed Eliza with 240 lines of code to simulate a psychotherapist. The program

answered questions with questions.

Asimov created the four laws of robot behavior, cyber laws all robots had to obey and a

fundamental part of positronic robotic engineering. The Isaac Asimov FAQ states, "Asimov

claimed that the laws were originated by John w. Campbell in a conversation they had on

December 23, 1940. Campbell in turn maintained that he picked them out of Asimov's

stories and discussions, and that his role was merely to state them explicitly. The first story to

explicitly state the three laws was "Runaround", which appeared in the March 1942 issue of

"Astounding Science Fiction." Unlike the three laws, however, the Zeroth law is not a

fundamental part of positronic robotic engineering, is not a part of all positronic robots, and,

in fact, requires a very sophisticated robot to even accept it."

Law Zeroth: A robot may not injure humanity, or, through inaction, allow humanity to come

to harm.

Law One: A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being

to come to harm, unless this would violate a higher order law.

Law Two: A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders

would conflict with a higher order law.

Law Three: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not

conflict with a higher order law.

An early example of robot technology, Grey Walter's "Machina Speculatrix" of the 1940's,

was recently restored to its working glory after being lost for some years. Walters "Machina"

were small robots that looked like turtles. The restored cyber turtles are freewheeling and

light-seeking creatures, propelled by two small electric motors. They roam in any direction

with sensor-contacts to avoid obstacles.



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