10 Milestones in Robotics History

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It’s been almost 100 years since a Czech playwright named Karel Čapek introduced the term “robot” in the 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Robots have since become a mainstay of fiction, as forces for both good (think R2-D2 in Star Wars) and bad (see the Terminator.) On a more practical note, robots have become so accepted in everyday life we take them for granted. Robots not only helped build the car you drive, within a few years robotic cars that drive themselves are expected to be commonplace. How did we get from that primitive robotic past to the present day, where robots may soon fly our planes, drive our cars and cook our meals? Here are a few notable milestones in the field of robotics.


10. Isaac Asimov Outlines Three Laws of Robotics (1942)

Isaac Asimov introduced the Three Laws of Robotics in a 1942 short story.

Isaac Asimov introduced the Three Laws of Robotics in a 1942 short story.

The brilliant sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov needs no introduction, but one of his short stories from 1942 continues to influence the debate about the future of robotics. In the story Runaround, Asimov outlined his Three Laws of Robotics:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Before Asimov’s laws, robots in fiction were invariably portrayed as evil, eager to turn on their human creator. Asimov’s laws not only changed the treatment of robots in fiction, but even today raise questions about how, or even whether, we should program these traits into future robots. While even the most advanced robots today are too simple to understand these concepts, the day draws closer when robots will be able to follow those instructions … or not, if they’re not programmed with those directives.


9. Mathematical Prodigy Defines Field of Cybernetics (1948)

MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener pioneered the field of cybernetics. © Konrad Jacobs

MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener pioneered the field of cybernetics. © Konrad Jacobs

One of the most unsung geniuses of the 20th century, Norbert Wiener was a child prodigy who graduated from high school at age 11. As a noted mathematician, he later taught at MIT; even in that rarified academic air he was regarded as a legend. But his most enduring fame came from his 1948 book, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, which coined the phrase “cybernetics.” In short, it defined how mechanisms could use feedback to self-regulate. These concepts have had profound implications in not only robotics and artificial intelligence but in everything from automatic navigation to neuroscience.


8. General Motors Uses World’s First Industrial Robot (1961)

The Unimate industrial robot, the world's first industrial robot. © Estate of George C. Devol

The Unimate industrial robot, the world’s first industrial robot. © Estate of George C. Devol

In the early 1950s, a self-taught inventor named George C. Devol had a dream — he wanted to build an industrial robot that could replace workers. Unlike one of Devol’s earlier inventions, a fast hot dog cooker named the “Speedy Weeny,” this invention would change the world. In 1954, Devol applied for a patent for what he dubbed Universal Automation, or Unimate for short.

Devol continued refining his invention, and by 1961, a General Motors plant near Trenton, N.J., began using a Unimate arm on an assembly line to remove hot die-cast metal from molds. Not surprisingly, labor unions were not enthusiastic about the move to robotics, but by the late 1960s, automakers were using Unimates for everything from welding to painting.


7. U.S. Military Begins Using Drone Aircraft in Vietnam (1964)

The United States used robotic drone aircraft like this for thousands of surveillance missions during the Vietnam War.

The United States used robotic drone aircraft like this for thousands of surveillance missions during the Vietnam War.

The concept of using drone aircraft in military operations has been around almost since the advent of flight. Drone aircraft were used for target practice during World War II, and the U.S. military even considered the idea of sending remotely controlled bombers into dangerous territory. But robotic aircraft first saw heavy use in wartime in Vietnam. Remotely controlled surveillance aircraft known as Lightning Bugs flew more than 34,000 surveillance missions in Vietnam.

Today, of course, robotic drone aircraft are used for more than surveillance, carrying various armaments to take out hostile forces. And these drones have been joined in recent years by terrestrial robots; the U.S. military first deployed armed robots on the ground in Iraq in 2007. The SWORDS Talons were modified bomb-disposal robots. Controlled remotely, they carried M249 machine guns. Those robots never fired a shot.


6. Researchers Create First Anthropomorphic Robot (1973)

Wabot-1 was the world's first anthropomorphic robot. © Humanoid Robotics Institute/Waseda University

Wabot-1 became the world’s first anthropomorphic robot. © Humanoid Robotics Institute/Waseda University

Researchers at Japan’s Waseda Institute created the world’s first full-scale anthropomorphic robot. Wabot-1 had systems for limb control, vision and conversation. It could even walk (tethered by a power cord) and grasp objects. The project engineers estimated it had the mental faculty of an 18-month-old child.


5. Doctor Performs First Robot-Assisted Surgery (1985)

A PUMA 500 model from the early 1980. © Theoprakt

A PUMA 500 model from the early 1980s. © Theoprakt

General Motors took the lead role in the development of the Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly (PUMA) robots, which found uses far beyond the automotive industry. In 1985, a PUMA 560 model assisted in a neurosurgical biopsy. Two years later, the robotic arm helped perform the first robot-assisted laparoscopic procedure. Robotic surgery offers many benefits over traditional procedures, including greater precision for the surgeon, a lower risk of infection and a quicker recovery time.


4. Honda Begins Work on Independent Walking Robot (1986)

Honda has spent 30 years refining a bipedal robot, leading to the amazing ASIMO (far right). © Honda/REX

Honda has spent 30 years refining a bipedal robot, leading to the amazing ASIMO (far right). © Honda/REX

Humans regard walking as an easy process. But bipedal motion actually presents numerous challenges in the field of robotics. A Serbian engineer, Miomir Vukobratović, even introduced a concept in 1972, the Zero Moment Point, to describe the physics involved in what is actually a very complex process. Building on previous research in the field, Honda set out to build the world’s first humanoid robot that could walk independently on two legs in 1986. The results of those efforts can be illustrated with stunning clarity in the above graphic. The machine-like EO model at far left needed five seconds to take a single step; today, Honda’s latest ASIMO model can run, walk on uneven surfaces, climb stairs, and avoid moving obstacles. Oh, it can also recognize faces, pour drinks and more.


3. Roomba Changes Perception of Robots (2002-present)

The Roomba has changed the way many people — and their pets — think about household robots. © Christopher Porter

The Roomba has changed the way many people — and their pets — think about household robots. © Christopher Porter

A robot that can vacuum your house unattended? It sounded crazy at the time. While the technology behind Roomba already existed in other applications, media coverage and social media posts about this robot performing a mundane household chore helped changed public perception about the future of home robotics. As Roomba inventor Helen Greiner told the Seattle Times in 2005, “I think in the old days, robots had a perception of being kind of scary, and more science fiction than science fact. These robots are on a mission, and so are we: to bring robots into the mainstream. … We can make robots do a better job than humans in some cases.”

More than 10 million Roombas have been sold since then. What’s next, a robot that mows your lawn unattended? Actually, that technology is already here — and has been since the 1960s, with the Mowbot.


2. NASA Launches First Human-Like Robot Into Orbit (2011)

NASA's Robonaut 2 robot has been on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

NASA’s Robonaut 2 joined the International Space Station crew in 2011. Credit: NASA

For anyone who has seen the 1979 sci-fi flick Alien, this may seem like an unsettling development. But NASA’s Robonaut 2, or R2, has been a useful member of the International Space Station crew since arriving in 2011. Built in conjunction with General Motors, R2 contains almost 50 patented or patent-pending innovations that will help define not just the future of robots in space travel, but here on Earth in everything from logistics and distribution to the medical field.


1. Self-Driving Car Passes Driver’s License Test (2012)

This Google self-driving car passed a driver's license exam in 2012. © Google

This Google self-driving car passed a driver’s license exam in 2012. © Google

Robotic, self-driving cars have been in the works for decades. Even as the popular 1980s TV show Knight Rider highlighted the self-aware Pontiac Trans Am KITT in the 1980s, engineers at Mercedes-Benz and elsewhere were working to develop autonomous cars that could operate without a driver. There have countless innovations in the years since. One major breakthrough: A Google self-driving car passed a driver’s license test in May 2012 in Las Vegas. With two high-ranking Nevada DMV officials in the backseat administering the test — and a Google engineer sitting in the driver’s seat to react in case of an emergency — the modified Toyota Prius passed the standard DMV test. The car braked at crosswalks, dodged a weaving bicyclist and even anticipated a pedestrian unexpectedly crossing in front of the car.

Like it or not, these self-driving cars will one day soon be the preferred mode of transportation on roads in much of the developed world. If this scenario sounds dangerous or otherwise unsettling to you, consider this: many automakers already incorporate self-driving features, such as automatic braking, into their new models; if we’re willing to trust our car to act properly in a crisis situation, why not when we’re leisurely cruising down the road at 45 mph?

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.