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Man's Best Friend: A Brief History of Robots

Robots can now assist in surgery, navigate Mars, and even vacuum your living room.

By Steven Kotler
Dec 1, 2005 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:08 AM


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Few concepts capture the human imagination more than robots, undoubtedly because they are often designed to mimic us. Even their technological development seems to parallel our advances.

We can judge the progress of our ability to harness scientific achievement simply by looking at a robot and asking this question: Exactly how much is this machine like a human? Or as Matt Mason, head of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, says, "In studying robotics we're really just studying ourselves." To take a measure of our progress, Discover offers a look in that mirror as we analyze the 25 greatest stepping-stones in robotics, points in time where science fiction meshes with science fact.

1956: Robby the Robot The term robot comes from Karel Capek's 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). Robot is derived from the Czech word robota, meaning "forced labor," but it didn't creep into common usage until 1956, when MGM released the film Forbidden Planet, featuring Robby the Robot. So complicated was his design that engineers spent two months thermoforming plastics into shapes previously thought impossible. They then added 2,600 feet of electrical wiring to make Robby's parts whirl and blink. Because MGM spent $1.9 million on the film, a blockbuster budget then, Robby became the iconic face of a burgeoning field. He even earned a spot as an inductee in Carnegie Mellon's Robot Hall of Fame.

1961: Unimate

In 1956 inventors Joe Engelberger and George Devol met to discuss the writings of Isaac Asimov. Their desire to realize his futuristic vision led to a five-year-long collaboration that spawned Unimation, the world's first robotics company, and Unimate, the world's first industrial robot. Capable of following step-by-step instructions, the jointed, telescopic, 4,000-pound hydraulic arm was introduced at the General Motors plant in Ewing, New Jersey, where it sequenced and stacked pieces of die-cast metal. Before long its repertoire had expanded to dangerous work, such as welding. Robotic arms have since become so ubiquitous that Engelberger is often called the father of robotics. The original Unimate is housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

1966: Shakey Developed by the Stanford Research Institute, Shakey was the first mobile robot to plot its own path. Armed with a television camera, a triangulating range finder, and a series of bump sensors—all connected to computers via radio and video links—Shakey was built to navigate controlled indoor environments. Although Shakey moved at a snail's pace, its skills were amazing for the time, recalls Greg Brown, vice president of operations and technology at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California.

1966: Stanford Cart Robotics pioneer Hans Moravec, now at Carnegie Mellon University, designed the Stanford Cart as a model for a remote-controlled moon rover. Like Shakey, it was supposed to maneuver on its own, but the Cart whisked along at one meter every 15 minutes, four times faster than Shakey.

1968: HAL 9000 Stanley Kubrick's movie 2001: A Space Odyssey offered a disturbing vision of artificial intelligence in HAL, a computer that could understand speech, read lips, play chess, pilot a spaceship, and kill off astronauts as if it were swatting flies. Of course, HAL was neither real nor a robot, but as Rodney Brooks, head of the artificial intelligence laboratory at MIT and the creator of a number of machines on this list, said, "HAL inspired me and inspired most everyone else I knew as well."

1968: GE Quadruped Transporter The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency contracted General Electric in 1968 to build the Quadruped Transporter, known as the Walking Truck or the Giant Elephant. Designed by Ralph Mosher for the terrain of Vietnam, the vehicle had four giant hydraulic legs instead of wheels. The operator, strapped in the main cab, controlled the legs with the motion of his own arms and legs—one of the earliest examples of force-feedback design, which ultimately helped lead to the joystick. Although never deployed, the Quadruped influenced the design of the Imperial combat walkers in the 1980 movie The Empire Strikes Back.

1969: Stanford Arm Stanford engineering student Victor Scheinman designed one of the first successful electrically powered, computer-controlled robotic arms. It led directly to the Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly series of industrial robots, still an industry mainstay.

1976: Soft Gripper Designed by Shigeo Hirose at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, the Soft Gripper emerged from studies of elephant trunks and snakes. It was the first robot grip capable of conforming to the shape of any object. That helped lead to the anthropomorphic hands used by amputees.

1977: R2-D2/C3PO: The force was strong with these faux androids 30 years ago. They were astro-mechanics, translators, hackers, companions, and the most popular robots in the history of the world.

1982: Replicant

Based on the writings of Philip K. Dick, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner showed us a robot that didn't know it was a robot. The dilemma dramatized the slippery slope of morality technologists are likely to face.

1983: Raibert's Hopping Machine Marc Raibert, founder of the Carnegie Mellon Leg Laboratory—which he moved to MIT in 1986—radically altered ideas about robot locomotion. The Hopping Machine could bounce and bound, achieving the dynamic balance of a human. Performance artist Mark Pauline credits the Hopping Machine with influencing many of his own robotic designs.

1989: Genghis The most famous of MIT roboticist Rodney Brooks's insect bots, Genghis had six legs, compound eyes, and six motion sensors tuned to the infrared band emitted by warm bodies. When an animal walked in front of Genghis, sensors prompted the robot to move toward it. When the animal stopped, Genghis stopped. Brooks was experimenting with breaking complex behavior down into simple reactions. When combined, those actions produced behavior that seemed natural.

1990: Robodoc Physician William Bargar and veterinary surgeon Howard Paul of Integrated Surgical Systems made history when Robodoc became the first robot to assist in surgery—first a hip replacement on a dog and then, in 1992, on a human.

1992: Running Machine In 1978 Mark Pauline's futuristic performance art troupe, called Survival Research Laboratories, began staging colossal, noisy, and destructive matches between homemade robots. All Pauline's creations are dangerous by design—some wield knives, others shoot walls of fire, one even hurls wooden boards at 200 miles per hour—but none became more popular than the insectlike Running Machine. The robot was one of the first of Pauline's machines to use dynamic locomotion. Pauline's creations helped inspire TV shows like Battlebots and Junkyard Wars.

1993: Cog Rodney Brooks of MIT created Cog to see if it was possible to raise a robot like a human. Using a new computer language and operating system, Brooks and his team began training Cog via trial and error. It was a couple of years before Cog could even make eye contact with a human or track a moving object, but today it can recognize faces, point out desired objects, play catch, and even hear a simple beat and play it back on a drum.

1994: Dante II Built by NASA and Carnegie Mellon, Dante I became the first robot to walk inside a volcano—Mount Erebus in Antarctica—but after 20 feet of exploration, it failed due to the extreme cold. Two years later, Dante II spent five days semiautonomously gathering data in the crater of Mount Spurr in Alaska, while controllers hunkered down 31 miles away. The mission inspired hopes that robots could one day explore other planets.

1997: Sojourner The six-wheeled 25-pound robotic rover rolled onto the surface of Mars on July 5, 1997. It was designed to serve as a test bed for future robotic missions, like Spirit's in 2004.

1999: da Vinci Intuitive Surgical's da Vinci system allows a surgeon to guide robotic arms and wrists to perform operations. Robotic surgery's main advantage over conventional surgery is improved safety, says Joe Rosen, one of the system's designers. Da Vinci reduces surgical hand tremors and increases a surgeon's range of motion. Currently approved for some laparoscopic procedures, da Vinci is most commonly used for prostate removal.

1999: AIBO The most famous and successful of the robot pets.

2002: ASIMO Honda's humanoid robot was the first one capable of true dynamic walking. It could climb stairs, navigate uneven surfaces, change its gait midstep, and even change direction midstride.

2002: Centibots Stanford Research Institute's Centibots, each the size of a toy truck, work in teams of up to 100. Built from off-the-shelf parts, they were designed to coordinate with one another while searching hazardous areas.

2002: Roomba

The first affordable fully automatic floor vacuum and the first robot to sell a million units.

2004: Spirit and Opportunity

Built by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the remote-controlled rovers have been exploring the Martian surface for more than a year.

2005: Gladiator

This joint project between BAE Systems and Carnegie Mellon will soon become the first semiautonomous tactical unmanned ground vehicle. Designed to replace a Marine during the first wave of an attack, Gladiator can withstand small-arms fire, grenades, and antipersonnel mines. The robotic soldier is equipped with thermal imaging, GPS and laser range finders, day and night cameras, an acoustic and chemical detection system, a light-vehicle obscuration smoke system, and a mounted weapons system.

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