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Universal Robots: The History and Workings of Robotics Honda Humanoid Robot


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If you think robots are mainly the stuff of space movies, think again. Right now, all over the world, robots are on the move. They’re painting cars at Ford plants, assembling Milano cookies for Pepperidge Farms, walking into live volcanoes, driving trains in Paris, and defusing bombs in Northern Ireland. As they grow tougher, nimbler, and smarter, today’s robots are doing more and more things we can’t –or don’t want to–do.

Robots have been with us for less than 50 years, but the idea of inanimate creations to do our bidding is much, much older. The ancient Greek poet Homer described maidens of gold, metallic helpers for the Hephaistos, the Greek god of the forge. The golems of medieval Jewish legend were robot-like servants made of clay, brought to life by a spoken charm. Leonardo da Vinci drew plans for a mechanical man in 1495.

But real robots wouldn’t become possible until the 1950’s and 60’s, with the invention of transistors and integrated circuits. Compact, reliable electronics and a growing computer industry added brains to the brawn of already existing machines. In 1959, researchers demonstrated the possibility of robotic manufacturing when they unveiled a computer-controlled milling machine. Its first product: ashtrays.

  Hans Moravec

Robotics researcher Hans Moravec of Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute discusses what defines a robot. [Need help?] Photo courtesy of Hans Moravec, Carnegie Mellon University.

What is a robot?

There’s no precise definition, but by general agreement a robot is a programmable machine that imitates the actions or appearance of an intelligent creature–usually a human. To qualify as a robot, a machine has to be able to do two things: 1) get information from its surroundings, and 2) do something physical–such as move or manipulate objects.

RUR Robot  
The RUR robot which appeared in an adaption of Karl Capek's Rossum's Universal Robots. [Click for a larger image.]  

The word robot comes from the Czech word robota, meaning drudgery or slave-like labor. It was first used to describe fabricated workers in a fictional 1920s play by Czech author Karel Capek called Rossum’s Universal Robots. In the story, a scientist invents robots to help people by performing simple, repetitive tasks. However, once the robots are used to fight wars, they turn on their human owners and take over the world.


Public fascination with robotics peaked in the early 1980’s, spurred in part by movies like Star Wars, which featured robots C3-PO and R2-D2 as helpful sidekicks to the their human masters. But interest sagged in a few short years as people discovered that getting robots to do things that we think of as easy–like moving across a cluttered room–is surprisingly difficult.

Today, robots are enjoying a resurgence. As computer processors are getting faster and cheaper, robots can afford to get smarter. Meanwhile, researchers are working on ways to help robots move and "think" more efficiently. Although most robots in use today are designed for specific tasks, the goal is to someday make universal robots, robots that are flexible enough to do just about anything a human does–and more.

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