A Brief History of Robots

The technology of robotics is advancing faster than ever, but where did it all begin? In truth, it originated in several places. Robotics crosses over many fields – including computers, coding, manufacturing and engineering – so its history is sprawling and difficult to summarise. Rather than try cover every single breakthrough, we’ve instead provided a brief overview of some of the key inventions and breakthroughs that led to modern robotics – with the hopes of inspiring you to make your own robotic innovation.

Early History & Automations

The earliest predecessor to a robot is probably Archytas’ Pigeon, built between 400-350BC. It was a false bird, constructed from wood and powered by steam – and is one of the earliest known examples of an automaton. Automatons are moving mechanical devices, often in humanoid form. Automatons were developed throughout the middle ages and into the 18th Century, with inventors like Al-Jazar, Jacque de Vaucanson and Tanaka Hisashige all contributing to their advancement. Through their work – clockwork and steam-powered mannequins could play flutes, pour tea, and dance without human interference. Another major component of modern robotics was introduced in the early 19th century, when the programmable computer was first invented by Charles Babbage, and first coded by Ada Lovelace. A further development came in 1898, when Nikola Tesla first demonstrated radio-controlled vessels. This provided technology to later bridge the gap between automatons – the robot’s body – and computers – the robot’s brain.

Electronic Origins

The next advances in robotic technology came from a variety of different fields, including radio guidance systems developed in the late 19th and early 20th century. Shortly after, humanoid robots made their debut in fiction. While the concept already existed, the word robot was first used by Karel Čapek, in his play “Rossum’s Universal Robots” in 1920. In this play, mechanical slaves rebel against their human masters. The term robot was derived from the Slavic word robota, which means forced labourer. During the 1940s, the groundwork of modern robotics was established. One important name from this early era is Alan Turing – the British mathematician who developed the Turing Machine, a forerunner to modern computers. Through his impressive body of work, he is seen as the father of both theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence. Another major element of AI was presented in 1942, when science fiction author Isaac Asimov introduced the Three Laws of Robotics. These laws have since been held as true in the development of real life robotics. Around the same time, American mathematician Norbert Wiener established cybernetics – defined as the science of communications and automatic control systems – as a discipline, thus providing the basis of practical robots. The same year, 1948, William Grey Walter created the first electronic devices capable of complex autonomous behaviour – two turtles called Elsie and Elmer which could find their charging stations when their batteries ran low. Controlled by analogue circuitry and not computers, they are technically considered pre-robots.

Who were the first real robots?

During the 1950s, a group of scientists from fields including mathematics, engineering and psychology, amongst others, started discussing the creation of an artificial brain. From these conversations, the field of artificial intelligence was founded in 1956. It was in the 1950s that physical robots truly emerged. Throughout the decade, George Devol developed the first digitally operated and programmable robot, eventually calling it Unimate. This robot was sold to General Motors in 1960, where it aided in car construction. In 1961, Devol founded the world’s first robotic manufacturing company – Unimation, which laid the groundwork for the modern robotics industry. Robots were originally seen as a curiosity, with Unimate appearing on US TV to perform tricks. Other robot arms were later developed, including the Rancho Arm – which was designed to help handicapped people, and the Stanford Arm – which was the first robot arm to be controlled exclusively by a computer. Shakey, developed by the pioneering Stanford Research Institute in 1970, was the first mobile robot capable of perceiving and navigating its surroundings using sensors. Prior robots had to be given instructions in individual steps, but Shakey could break larger commands down by itself.

Robot Evolution

Once the basics were established, robots started taking many different forms and adopting new roles as their technology developed.In 1984, Wabot-2 – a robot capable of reading score music and playing the organ with 10 fingers and two feet – was first unveiled. Two years later, Honda launched its robot program – seeking to develop robots capable of interacting with humans. This led to the creation of the P-series robots, and the ultimate end product of ASIMO in the 2000s. One of the most distinctive robots, the hexapod called Genghis, was unveiled by MIT in 1989. Widespread development of robots continued through the 1990s, and robot toys like Aibo and Furby exploded in popularity. The RoboTuna was built by MIT doctoral student David Barrett to study how fish swim. The Cyberknife, a radiosurgery robot, was invented by Dr John Adler in 1994, and became FDA approved to perform tumour-removal surgery in 2002. The internal, computerised aspects of robots also developed. The computer Deep Thought beat chess master David Levy in 1989. In 1997, world chess champion Garry Kasparov was defeated by the chess computer Deep Blue.

What are modern robots like?

Today, robots come in all shapes and sizes and the rate of advance has grown exponentially. Robots have taken increasingly large roles in commercial agriculture and production industries like car manufacturing, often doing jobs too dangerous or repetitive for humans. As they can work in hazardous and alien environments, robots have key roles in underwater and space exploration – with rovers like Opportunity and Curiosity on the surface of Mars and robotic arms helping out around the International Space Station. Robots also have a growing use in modern military procedures – with devices like BigDog assisting forces in rough terrains and Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) robots examining and disposing of suspicious packages. Up until very recently, robots have mostly existed on the fringes of human society – but now their technology has developed to the point where they can be a part of our daily, immediate lives.

Robots for the home

Netatmo Smart Thermostat

Robot vacuum cleaners led the way for small assistants around the home, with the first one appearing back in the 1990s. Since then, robots like the Robomow and smart appliances like the iKettle and the Netatmo thermostat have followed to lift more chores from busy schedules. Collaborative robots, or cobots, have been designed to physically interact with humans in a shared workplace. Such robots have been introduced to science labs, where they assist in dangerous experiments, and also now work in restaurants and hotels in China and Japan. Robots are still seen as a ‘cute’ novelty by many, but as the technology advances there are warnings about the potential for mass-unemployment caused by a mechanised workforce. As a result, it is important to find a way for robots to co-exist with – and not replace – humans.

Robots of the future

So how will robots change in the next few years? Planned projects include robotic prosthetics for amputees and people with disabilities, some of which can be controlled by the mind alone. A future extension of this technology would be powered human exoskeletons – of which several prototypes have already been produced. Unmanned vehicles, such as self-driving cars, are actively in development and expected to reach markets in the next few years. The creation of humanoid androids is also advancing, with tests and prizes held by major bodies to recognise breakthroughs. The use of androids, with their humanoid features, is of particular interest for application in care for the sick and elderly. Further off, nanorobots and molecular nanotechnology currently exist in the realms of theoretical science, as do phase-change materials – which could adapt the solid state of robots and allow them to move like an octopus. As the coding involved develops, so too does artificial intelligence. Robots today have been known to show basic self-awareness and hold reactive conversations with humans, and discussion as to how best educate and curb this developing intelligence remains ongoing. As a result of all this, robotics is still a developing field with lots of potential. It, like many tech fields, is always welcome of a new ideas and developments – so what are you waiting for?