A brief history of robotics – from the beginnings to the present day

From the beginnings of robotics to the possibilities of the present.

It is impossible to imagine science fiction literature without robots, and they already determine our lives to a large extent. There is no doubt that robotics will play a major role in every area of life in the future. But how far back does this idea go, how far apart are fiction and reality, and what exactly is a robot?

Futuristic self-driving vehicles that travel from A to B at great speed or person-like machines with human characteristics that serve or are hostile to humans. These were ingredients of any good science fiction novel. Literature and film history knows many famous robots such as R2D2 or C3PO from the Star Wars saga, T-800 from Terminator, Johnny 5 from the movie Number 5 Lives!, Sonny from I, Robot, Bender from the series Futurama or the cute robot WALL-E.
Technology has now brought many things that were previously considered pure science fiction into the realm of possibility, but how close have we actually come to these ideas? How far is the current state of technology from the futuristic ideas of earlier fantasists?

History of robotics

Even in ancient Greece, people were preoccupied with the idea of “living” or independently moving mechanical constructions. Some stories come from the realm of mythology, such as the iron giant Talos, who was forged by the smith god Hephaistos to guard the island of Crete. But there were also quite real approaches to machines or automata, such as the plans of automatic devices attributed to a Greek mathematician named Heron of Alexandria. Arab scholars and even Leonardo Da Vinci also drew plans for independently moving machines and even of person-shaped mechanical constructions that resembled a knight’s armor and can therefore be considered the first drawings of an android.

The goal in the development of autonomous machines was always to save people from tedious, monotonous or dangerous work. The first fully automated device was a programmable loom invented by Frenchman Jacques de Vaucanson. Weaving by hand was a very uniform but physically demanding activity. As technology advanced, early robotics became interesting for military considerations as well. However, it would be some time before technology was ready to produce automated autonomous machines.

Sience fiction and robotics

Until then, the idea of autonomous machine beings with human-like abilities still remained in the realm of fantasy. Numerous authors dealt with this utopian idea. Among them was Jules Verne, but also the Czech writer Karel Čapek, who coined the term “robot” in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which he derived from the Czech word “robot” for work/forced labor. The literary motif of man-made and oppressed machine creatures grouping together and rising up against man also appears for the first time.

However, the most important science fiction author on the subject of robotics is Isaac Asimov, who further spread the concept of robots and first established the famous three robot laws in a short story. These three rules are still discussed today in many contexts of robotics and are as follows: (Source: Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”)

  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 Laws

Even if science fiction literature has no real reference to the technical possibilities, it shaped the idea that people have of robots quite decisively.

The term “robot”

Das führt auch zu der Frage, wovon wir eigentlich sprechen, wenn wir das Wort “Roboter” verwenden. Wenn wir davon ausgehen, dass eine Maschine ein angetriebenes, vom Menschen gesteuertes Werkzeug zur Ausführung einer bestimmten Aufgabe bedeutet, dann ist ein Automat eine Maschine, die selbstständig eine ganz bestimmte Aufgabe ausführen kann. Ein Roboter unterscheidet sich von einem Automaten dadurch, dass er programmierbar ist und viele verschiedene Aufgaben selbstständig ausführen kann, während er gleichzeitig auf Eindrücke aus der physikalischen Welt reagiert.

Mechanical engineering, computer science and electrical engineering

Robotics is then the science of robots and combines elements of mechanical engineering, computer science and electrical engineering, i.e. the mechanical and electronic design of robots as well as the software that controls robots and makes them react to stimuli in the environment. The tremendous advances in artificial intelligence and neural networks has incredibly expanded the possibilities of controlling robots; learning patterns of action in situations (e.g., driving slowly or stopping when people are nearby) and responses to specific sensor inputs (e.g., commands from a human voice) is now possible. For the future of robotics, artificial intelligence will be crucial and open up unimagined application possibilities, but also create many new challenges.

Robotics & Society

However, many social, ethical and legal questions are also raised in connection with the topic of robotics. For example, whether it is permissible for robots to be used for strenuous nursing activities such as caring for the elderly and the sick, or questions of value in connection with the control software/AI of robots (a famous example from the film “I Robot” is which persons have priority in a rescue by robots) but also questions of liability and safety, especially in connection with the topic of autonomous driving in road traffic or data protection.

Robot categories

Robots can be further divided into different categories, such as mobile and non-mobile robots as well as autonomous and remote-controlled robots, or according to their type of propulsion or means of locomotion (drone, wheeled robots, robots with two or more “legs”). Distinctions according to purpose, appearance or degree of interaction are also possible, e.g. industrial robots, mobile autonomous robots, cobots, humanoid robots, medical robots, transport robots, service robots… More about the different types of robots, how they work and an outlook into the future can be found in the second part of the article.

Continue in the 2nd part about the modern forms of robotics

Author: Lena Sophie Franke

ARTI is developing software for autonomous mobile robots. Robust enough for real-world scenarios, indoor and outdoor, and suitable for different industrial fields. ARTI offers modular AI-kits as well as full turnkey products. Our customers can pick precisely the solution they need, either build a complete robotic system from scratch or improve existing products by adding artificial intelligence.

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