Today, robots are used for many practical purposes. They can be found in factories building everything from pianos to spaceships because robots can do repetitive work tirelessly, with accuracy and precision not possible for people. Many of us use robots in our homes, doing unpleasant chores such as cleaning the floors, mowing the lawn and cleaning out the kitty litter pan. Robots also do dangerous jobs connected to the military and law enforcement. Robots have revolutionized surgery, making life saving operations possible. They are used in agriculture, underwater exploration and can even clean up things like oil spills that damage the environment. Surprisingly, the first robots were created for amusement.
Tracing the origin of robots takes us far back in history. The first machines capable of automatic movement appeared in the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, written by Islamic inventor and mechanical engineer Al-Jazari (1136-1206)1206 AD. He, along with Leonardo DaVinci, may be considered the “father of robotics.” But, many of their popular inventions had little practical purpose. Al-Jazari created the water powered Elephant Clock, which was based on technologies gleaned from other ancient inventors. Al-Jazari acknowledged their contributions, with the elephant represents Indian culture, the dragons representing Chinese culture and the turban representing Islamic culture. Leonardo DaVinci designed a mechanical lion which was presented to the King of France in 1515. It was able to walk forward, opening up to reveal a gift of flowers for the king. These first robots were called “automata.” Many of the first automata were created and used by magicians to amuse their wealthy patrons. Soon, they were being produced as toys and were collected by wealthy familes. They are still being made as art pieces by adults and children. While most people know little about the history of robots, all school kids today know about automata thanks to the popular book The Inventions of Hugot Cabret. The author, Brian Selznick, was inspired by a famous automata created around 1800 by Henri Maillardet. These early robots were a mashup of science, mathematics and art; what we might think of today as STEAM. While they had little practical purpose, they paved the way for modern computer robotics that are so useful in the world today.
So, what is the future of robotics? Artificial Intelligence, or AI, (the ability to perform intelligent behavior with minimal human intervention) is the most promising and also the most controversial development in robotics. Can robots ever “think” like humans, and would we want them to? Another area of development is nano-robotics. Nanobots are microscopic robots that operate on the molecular level. They are so tiny, they can move atoms around. They could prove very useful in medicine, for example, a nanoswimmer could swim through a person’s bloodstream to deliver life saving drugs.
While it is certain that robots can help humans, they might also hurt if they fall into the wrong hands, which is something we don’t have to imagine, but can see in any of the latest science fiction movies. The big question is this: What can we do about it? Can we stop developing these technologies? How can we make sure robotics is used for good and not evil?