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MAIN Arrow to TechnologyTechnology Arrow to  RoboticsRobotics

Robots have fascinated and frightened people for decades in their relentless evolution from machine to humanoid.

Today, huge leaps are being made in mechanized movement and artificial intelligence, In Japan, engineers are putting robots through the paces in a few decidedly entertaining dance moves, or for novelty duties as modern mechanized receptionists.

Critics, meanwhile, contend that modern robots (for all practical purposes) have only reached the roomba vacuum cleaner stage in importance in everyday life.

metropolis robotics vs the modern Roomba
"Metropolis" (1927) foretold of a robotic dystopia versus today's reality: the Roomba.

The (slow) rise of the machines

Leonardo's robot
Leonardo's robot, circa 1495

The first ever recorded robot was designed - surprise - in 1495.

Painter and inventor Leonardo da Vinci was the mastermind behind Leonardo's robot that was actually an armored knight who could sit, stand, and maneuver its arms for the entertainment of of Italian royalty.

Yet even da Vinci knew that his clever system of cables and pulleys -- that lent chunky movement to mechanical knight -- was no match for real humans.

Meanwhile, artificial intelligence was another hurdle for inventors who aimed at giving robots the ability to do their bidding.

The first big development came with inventor Joseph Jacquard, who built the world's first automated loom controlled with punched cards in 1801. (The cards later evolved into the mid-20th century’s famous IBM punched cards that were used in early computing.)

From there, it was inventor Nicholas Tesla who next demonstrated to the world the first robot vehicle -- a remote-control boat that could be commanded to go, stop, turn its lights on and off, and even submerge. The public was not impressed. Tesla's use of radio waves to power the craft resulted in a round of accusations of chicanery and "magic" when the invention was first unveiled in 1899.

By the mid-20th century it was full speed ahead for robotic development when the first general-purpose digital computer, the Whirlwind, solved its first problem at M.I.T. in 1946. By the following year, Bell Laboratories had invented the transistor as it paved the way for the development of almost every electronic device we know today -- from radios to computers to robots.

Shakey the Robot
Created at Stanford, Shakey the robot
navigated obstacles via a TV camera,
a laser range finder, and bumpers.

Forgetting the transistor for a moment, it was "mad scientist" and British inventor William Grey Walter who used only two vacuum tubes, two motors, a photoelectric cell and a touch contact to create his famous "turtle" robot. (All enclosed in a tortoise-shaped shell, the turtle was the world's first autonomous robot to feature learned behaviors and reactions to outside stimuli - in 1949!)

By the 1960's the world marveled at the first industrial robot Unimate which was installed in a General Motors factory in in New Jersey. It was the first assembly line robot to assist in making car parts. And, by the end of the decade the first computer-controlled robotic arm was developed at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab.

The university followed up a year later with the first mobile robot controlled by artificial intelligence. Dubbed "Shakey", it found its way around via a TV camera, laser range finder, and bump sensors.

star wars robots
Hollywood introduces robots with the
same hopes, dreams, and insecurities
as their human masters.

By the late 70's, Hollywood played a part in inspiring millions of sci-fi fans with the most advanced robots ever seen on film with big-screen appearance of R2D2 and C3PO in the mega-hit Star Wars.

Their popularity in films would go on to spark other advanced mechanical characters to star in other blockbusters such as Alien (1979) The Terminator (1984) Transformers (1986), RoboCop (1987) and Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001) to name only a few.

Who knew that robots (fictional as they may be) could have the same hopes, fear, and insecurities as their makers?

Robots' firmly-established role in mainstream pop culture now inspired more real-world robotic development. Most famously, Honda introduced ASIMO in 2002 as the first robot that could walk independently with relatively smooth movements and could even climb the stairs.

asimo robotHowever, for all the advanced circuitry and expensive hardware, ASIMO serves in the real world mainly as a goodwill ambassador for Honda.

Which brings us back to the Roomba - the robotic vacuum cleaner that has been adopted in millions of households worldwide. And, for all practical purposes, it still the only robot to form a personal relationship with actual consumers.

Yet there have been further advances made in the last five years that herald robotics coming-of-age.

Unimaginable even in the recent past, robotic development ranges anywhere from helping children tackle autism to getting the elderly back on the feet after a stroke. (see video.)


Where else is robot technology heading in the 21st century?

Around the Web, learn more about androids and humanoids, BattleBots, bipeds, quadrupeds, and the rest of the robot nation in this (human) handcrafted guide to top sites for robots and robotics...

also see in Toy Reviews --> Kota the Triceratops | Pleo the Dinosaur

More about robotics around the Web:

Android World - Aptly named site with tons of info on humanoid robots in history, entertainment, as well as current experiments and projects with links to suppliers, competitions, related robotic sites, recommended books and more. - Breaking news, discussion boards, resources, Robot of the Day feature, and the frequently updated Robot Competition FAQ. News, forum, competitions, and an extensive directory of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) sites around the Web. Free tutorials, news, discussion forums, and an extensive directory of links to related robotics Web sites. Breaking news and interviews, info on research and events, related links.

Popular Mechanics Robotics The print magazine's cache of archived online articles on robotics technology.

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