WHAT IS A ROBOT?
by Tom Carroll
You might wonder, if the author of an article on robotics doesn’t know
what a robot is, should he be writing about them? Most of you know that
the term ‘robot’ came from Karel Capek’s 1920 play, “RUR,” though it was
Capek’s brother, Josef, who actually suggested that his brother use the
word in the script. Isaac Asimov’s many stories later popularized robots as
benevolent helpers to mankind. I’ve been asked “what exactly is a robot”
more times than I can remember. Robots have been in industry and our
culture for 50 years, and views have changed quite a bit since the first
industrial robot: the Unimation Unimate shown in Figure 1. Before the
first industrial robots, the word ‘robot’ meant an experimental creation
from an advanced hobbyist or university’s lab, or a fictional creation.
What Was A Robot 50 Years Ago?
Technical journals these days are celebrating the 50th
anniversary of the robot. In the early 1960s, robots were
objects of amazement in science fiction movies for the
average person. For experimenters and labs around the
world, robots were creations that wandered aimlessly
around the floor, bouncing off walls. At the same time, Joe
Engelberger was working with George Devol to bring forth
that first industrial robot. Those with any sort of
technological bent were looking forward to the day when
true, factory-produced machines would be available to
Fictional robot designs were of the humanoid variety,
just like the characters in movies and Sci-Fi stories. As my
wife, Sue, just told me, back then as a young girl, she saw
a robot as “a fictional character in a movie, a mechanical
creation that could perform tasks like a human would.”
Nobody had the faintest clue as to how to build a true
bipedal humanoid robot, so the ‘human’ part was difficult
to create. The balancing technology for walking machines
did not exist yet in compact form, and sufficient computer
power was only available in huge mainframe machines
stuck in a few backrooms of large corporations and
universities. A robot five decades ago had a limited
definition as there were few actual robotic devices outside
of labs and some military weaponry.
What Is A Robot Today?
Today’s new influx of personal and service robots are
not being developed because they are ‘cool’ but because
people have really come to rely on them for daily tasks.
iRobot’s Roomba was the cool gadget to have in the mid
‘90s, but now millions of people have found that vacuum-
FIGURE 1. The Unimate robot.
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