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[1] What is robotics?

In this section we define the words 'robot' and 'robotics' and look a little at the history of robots.

[1.1] What is the definition of a 'robot'?
[1.2] Where did the word robot come from?
[1.3] When did robots, as we know them today, come into existence?

1.1 What is the definition of a 'robot'?

"A reprogrammable, multifunctional manipulator designed to move material, parts, tools, or specialized devices through various programmed motions for the performance of a variety of tasks"
Robot Institute of America, 1979

Obviously, this was a committee-written definition. It's rather dry and uninspiring. Better ones for 'robotics' might include:

Force through intelligence.
Where AI meet the real world.

Webster says: An automatic device that performs functions normally ascribed to humans or a machine in the form of a human.

[1.2] Where did the word 'robot' come from?

The word 'robot' was coined by the Czech playwright Karel Capek (pronounced "chop'ek") from the Czech word for forced labor or serf. Capek was reportedly several times a candidate for the Nobel prize for his works and very influential and prolific as a writer and playwright. Mercifully, he died before the Gestapo got to him for his anti-Nazi sympathies in 1938.

The use of the word Robot was introduced into his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) which opened in Prague in January 1921. The play was an enormous success and productions soon opened throughout Europe and the US. R.U.R's theme, in part, was the dehumanization of man in a technological civilization. You may find it surprising that the robots were not mechanical in nature but were created through chemical means. In fact, in an essay written in 1935, Capek strongly fought that this idea was at all possible and, writing in the third person, said:

"It is with horror, frankly, that he rejects all responsibility for the idea that metal contraptions could ever replace human beings, and that by means of wires they could awaken something like life, love, or rebellion. He would deem this dark prospect to be either an overestimation of machines, or a grave offence against life."
[The Author of Robots Defends Himself - Karl Capek, Lidove noviny, June 9, 1935, translation: Bean Comrada]

There is some evidence that the word robot was actually coined by Karl's brother Josef, a writer in his own right. In a short letter, Capek writes that he asked Josef what he should call the artifical workers in his new play. Karel suggests Labori, which he thinks too 'bookish' and his brother mutters "then call them Robots" and turns back to his work, and so from a curt response we have the word robot.

R.U.R is found in most libraries. The most common English translation is that of P. Selver from the 1920's which is not completely faithful to the original. A more recent and accurate translation is in a collection of Capek's writings called Towards the Radical Center published by Catbird Press in North Haven, CT. tel: 203.230.2391

The term 'robotics' refers to the study and use of robots. The term was coined and first used by the Russian-born American scientist and writer Isaac Asimov (born Jan. 2, 1920, died Apr. 6, 1992). Asimov wrote prodigiously on a wide variety of subjects. He was best known for his many works of science fiction. The most famous include I Robot (1950), The Foundation Trilogy (1951-52), Foundation's Edge (1982), and The Gods Themselves (1972), which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

The word 'robotics' was first used in Runaround, a short story published in 1942. I, Robot, a collection of several of these stories, was published in 1950. Asimov also proposed his three "Laws of Robotics", and he later added a 'zeroth law'.

An interesting article on this subject:

Clarke, Roger, "Asimov's Laws for Robotics: Implications for Information Technology", Part 1 and Part 2, Computer, December 1993, pp. 53-61 and Computer, January 1994, pp.57-65.

The article is an interesting discussion of his Laws and how they came to be in his books, and the implications for technology today and in the future.

[1.3] When did robots, as we know them today, come into existence?

The first industrial modern robots were the Unimates developed by George Devol and Joe Engelberger in the late 50's and early 60's. The first patents were by Devol for parts transfer machines. Engelberger formed Unimation and was the first to market robots. As a result, Engelberger has been called the 'father of robotics.'

Modern industrial arms have increased in capability and performance through controller and language development, improved mechanisms, sensing, and drive systems. In the early to mid 80's the robot industry grew very fast primarily due to large investments by the automotive industry. The quick leap into the factory of the future turned into a plunge when the integration and economic viability of these efforts proved disastrous. The robot industry has only recently recovered to mid-80's revenue levels. In the meantime there has been an enormous shakeout in the robot industry. In the US, for example, only one US company, Adept, remains in the production industrial robot arm business. Most of the rest went under, consolidated, or were sold to European and Japanese companies.

In the research community the first automata were probably Grey Walter's machina (1940's) and the John's Hopkins beast. Teleoperated or remote controlled devices had been built even earlier with at least the first radio controlled vehicles built by Nikola Tesla in the 1890's. Tesla is better known as the inventor of the induction motor, AC power transmission, and numerous other electrical devices. Tesla had also envisioned smart mechanisms that were as capable as humans. An excellent biography of Tesla is Margaret Cheney's Tesla, Man Out of Time, Published by Prentice-Hall, c1981.

SRI's Shakey navigated highly structured indoor environments in the late 60's and Moravec's Stanford Cart was the first to attempt natural outdoor scenes in the late 70's. From that time there has been a proliferation of work in autonomous driving machines that cruise at highway speeds and navigate outdoor terrains in commercial applications.

Articles on the history of personal robots:

What ever happened to ... Personal Robots? by Stan Veit The Computer Shopper, Nov 1992 v12 n11 p794(2)

What ever happened to ... Personal Robots? (part 2) by Stan Veit Computer Shopper, April 1993 v13 n4 p702(2)

I have the text to these online but am trying to find out if I can include these as part of the FAQ or as separate files that are ftpable.

Last-Modified: Mon Aug 19 02:52:16 1996
Kevin Dowling <>