The image usually thought of by the word robot is that of a mechanical
being, somewhat human in shape. Common in science fiction, robots are generally
depicted as working in the service of people, but often escaping the control of
the people and doing them harm.
The word robot comes from the Czech writer Karel Capek’s 1921 play “
R.U.R.” (which stands for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”), in which mechanical
beings made to be slaves for humanity rebel and kill their creators. From this,
the fictional image of robots is sometimes troubling, expressing the fears that
people may have of a robotized world over which they cannot keep control. The
history of real robots is rarely as dramatic, but where developments in robotics
may lead is beyond our imagination.
Robots exist today. They are used in a relatively small number of
factories located in highly industrialized countries such as the United States,
Germany, and Japan. Robots are also being used for scientific research, in
military programs, and as educational tools, and they are being developed to aid
people who have lost the use of their limbs. These devices, however, are for
the most part quite different from the androids, or humanlike robots, and other
robots of fiction. They rarely take human form, they perform only a limited
number of set tasks, and they do not have minds of their own. In fact, it is
often hard to distinguish between devices called robots and other modern
Although the term robot did not come into use until the 20th century,
the idea of mechanical beings is much older. Ancient myths and tales talked
about walking statues and other marvels in human and animal form. Such objects
were products of the imagination and nothing more, but some of the mechanized
figures also mentioned in early writings could well have been made. Such
figures, called automatons, have long been popular.
For several centuries, automatons were as close as people came to
constructing true robots. European church towers provide fascinating examples
of clockwork figures from medieval times, and automatons were also devised in
China. By the 18th century, a number of extremely clever automatons became
famous for a while. Swiss craftsman Pierre Jacquet-Droz, for example, built
mechanical dolls that could draw a simple figure or play music on a miniature
organ. Clockwork figures of this sort are rarely made any longer, but many of
the so called robots built today for promotional or other purposes are still
basically automatons. They may include technological advances such as radio
control, but for the most part they can only perform a set routine of
entertaining but otherwise useless actions.
Modern robots used in workplaces arose more directly from the Industrial
Revolution and the systems for mass production to which it led. As factories
developed, more and more machine tools were built that could perform some simple,
precise routine over and over again on an assembly line. The trend toward
increasing automation of production processes proceeded through the development
of machines that were more versatile and needed less tending. One basic
principle involved in this development was what is known as feedback, in which
part of a machine’s output is used as input to the machine as well, so that it
can make appropriate adjustments to changing operating conditions.
The most important 20th-century development, for automation and for
robots in particular, was the invention of the computer. When the transistor
made tiny computers possible, they could be put in individual machine tools.
Modern industrial robots arose from this linking of computer with machine. By
means of a computer, a correctly designed machine tool can be programmed to
perform more than one kind of task. If it is given a complex manipulator arm,
its abilities can be enormously increased. The first such robot was designed by
Victor Scheinman, a researcher at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory of the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. It was followed in
the mid-1970s by the production of so called programmable universal manipulators
for assembly (PUMAs) by General Motors and then by other manufacturers in the
The nation that has used this new field most successfully, however, is
Japan. It has done so by making robot manipulators without trying to duplicate
all of the motions of which the human arm and hand are capable. The robots are
also easily reprogrammed and this makes them more adaptable to changing tasks on
an assembly line. The majority of the industrial robots in use in the world
today are found in Japan.
Except for firms that were designed from the start around robots, such
as several of those in Japan, industrial robots are still only slowly being
placed in production lines. Most of the robots in large automobile and airplane
factories are used for welding, spray-painting, and other operations where
humans would require expensive ventilating systems. The problem of workers
being replaced by industrial robots is only part of the issue of automation as a
whole, and individual robots on an assembly line are often regarded by workers
in the familiar way that they think of their car.
Current work on industrial robots is devoted to increasing their
sensitivity to the work environment. Computer-linked television cameras serve
as eyes, and pressure-sensitive skins are being developed for manipulator
grippers. Many other kinds of sensors can also be placed on robots.
Robots are also used in many ways in scientific research, particularly
in the handling of radioactive or other hazardous materials. Many other highly
automated systems are also often considered as robots. These include the probes
that have landed on and tested the soils of the moon, Venus, and Mars, and the
pilotless planes and guided missiles of the military.
None of these robots look like the androids of fiction. Although it
would be possible to construct a robot that was humanlike, true androids are
still only a distant possibility. For example, even the apparently simple act
of walking on two legs is very hard for computer-controlled mechanical systems
to duplicate. In fact, the most stable walker made, is a six-legged system. A
true android would also have to house or be linked to the computer-equivalent of
a human brain. Despite some claims made for the future development of
artificial intelligence, computers are likely to remain calculating machines
without the ability to think or create for a long time.
Research into developing mobile, autonomous robots is of great value.
It advances robotics, aids the comparative study of mechanical and biological
systems, and can be used for such purposes as devising robot aids for the
As for the thinking androids of the possible future, the well-known
science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov has already laid down rules for their
behavior. Asimov’s first law is that robots may not harm humans either through
action or inaction. The second is that they must obey humans except when the
commands conflict with the first law. The third is that robots must protect
themselves except, again, when this comes into conflict with the first law.
Future androids might have their own opinions about these laws, but these issues
must wait their time.
Buckley, Ruth V. “Robot.” Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc. 1993. Gibilisco,
Stan. The McGraw-Hill Illustrated Encyclopedia of Robotics and Artificial
Intelligence. McGraw-Hill, Inc. New York, 1994. Warring, R. H. Robots and
Robotology. Tab Books Inc. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa. 1984.
And various sites on the internet.