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Over the past century, science fiction writers have popularized the idea of a mechanical person or creature built to aid humanity in some cases, or possibly destroy it in others.  In fact, the word “robot” may bring any number of images to mind. Everything from friendly house maids of the future, such as Rosie Jetson, to giant, death machines from outer space like the planet Mars’ Monstrous Tripods, have been introduced to the human imagination.  Now, in the tech-savvy 21st century, many of these imagined creations have been brought to life, both literally, and on film. The story of how this came to be is as fascinating as what the future might bring.

It may surprise you to know that robotic engineering, and the concept of an artificial human being, has been around for thousands of years. Though these ancient and crude inventions don't seem so impressive by today's standards, the idea of mechanical devices was already very much alive in Earth’s ancient history.  NASA's  website places the beginning of robotic engineering at 270 B.C., when Greek inventor Ctesibus made organs and water clocks with movable figures.

Golem

Greek mythology also included the idea of robotics, with the story of Talos. Talos was a giant, bronze automoton, a living statue that was created by the god of metalworking, Hephaistos, whose job it was to create weapons. Zeus presented this creation to his lover, Europa, as a guardian when she went to Crete.  Later, the famous Jason and his Argonauts would have to face off against this colossal robot of the ancient world.

Greece, however, wasn't the only culture that believed in the legend of artificial humanoids. For example, Jewish lore tells of a creature called Golem, a lower version of man, who was created from dirt by Jewish mystics. After holy words were placed in the mouth or on the forehead of the creature, giving life to its form, it would follow commands exactly as given..

The most popular of these Golem stories is the legend of  The Golem of Prague. The story claims that Judah Loew Ben Bezalel, a 16th century rabbi of of Prague, created a Golem to protect the Jewish community against deadly attacks by Rudolf  II, Holy Roman Emperor.  Though the Golem was successful, something went terribly wrong (there are multiple versions of the story including a maniacal killing spree and the creature just being “on” during the Sabbath) and the rabbi was forced to destroy his creation in front of the synagogue. 

War of the Worlds

As the 1800's rolled around, the Age of Mysticism was replaced by an era of science. Novelists, such as Marie Shelly, began exploring the possibilities (and problems) of scientific discovery, which eventually led us to Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. Though you could consider Frankenstein's monster more of a zombie than a robot, it suggested the then radical idea that an inanimate body could be powered by something tangible and scientific, such as electricity.   

Science fiction blossomed at the turn of the 20th century.  So when H.G Wells first introduced us to giant, robotic creatures from outer space in War of the Worlds, the idea of mechanical, autonomous inventions run by electricity already seemed very plausible.  In 1921, playwright Karel Capek coined the term “robot” in his play Rossums Universal Robots.  The play was written in Prague, the same city infamous for its Golem legend. Though Capek denied a link between the stories, they have an eerily similar plot:. A man creates an artificial person, and that person ends up killing innocent people.

Rossum Universal RobotsAs technology and science expanded dramatically during  the 20th century, both fiction writers and scientists began giving serious thought to how a robot could be built, and what problems might arise from creating an artificial brain.  In 1942, Issac Asimov wrote a short story titled Runaround, a story that revolved around the three rules of law that every robot would be programmed to follow, and the problems that arose when those laws contradicted each other. This story actually suggested the concept of programming errors, long before actual programming  even existed. Six years later, the first research paper on Cybernetics was published by mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener, which investigated the possible real life applications for an artificial brain. 

Finally, it happened for real!  Robotics was developed, which brought scuence fiction to life.  In 1961, the first industrial robot went online in a General Motors factory in New Jersey.  And later, computer software was installed within these mechanical beasts, hurling us through time and space toward the robot of the 21st century. 

Though science fiction is very much alive and well these days, abounding with all kinds of robotic creatures, the latest hot concepts for robot design are actually coming from real life scientists.  Modern advancements in robotics, including complex programming software and GPS navigation technology, have created an incredibly, and often wildly diverse, number of design ideas.

 

Amazon Flying DronePractical Flying Drones

We're all at least somewhat familiar with the unmanned, flying drones developed for the military over the past 10 years, but now the technology is going commercial.  Recently, companies such as Amazon and Domino’s Pizza have unveiled plans for delivery drones. Unlike their military counterparts, commercial drones will fly more like helicopters than jets.  Amazon's drone uses GPS to locate its destination and sensors that detect, and maneuver around, obstacles that may come along.  The design used for these drones is called an Octocopter (as in a helicopter with eight rotating blades), which helps the craft stay afloat if one of its engines fails. According to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, we could be seeing Amazon drones delivering packages by air within five years. Unfortunately though,  these drones won't be able to deliver large packages.  The size constraint is roughly a pound, but that would still easily allow delivery of most of our pocket-sized gadgets, DVDs and video games.

 

Big DogThe Real Big Dog and Friends, Cheetah, WildCat and RHex

Boston Dynamics early internet sensation, called Big Dog, this four-legged robot was created to easily handle tough terrain better than wheeled robots.  Its purpose is to carry heavy loads for troops, responding to the voice commands of its operator to move, or hold back. One of its most impressive features include its ability to regain its balance after being kicked, and being able to walk on ice.  The newest rendition of Big Dog is the LS3 (Legged Squad Support System), which is more suitable for complex commands. Google recently announced that it bought Boston Dynamics, and released information about similar prototypes such as the Cheetah and RHex.

Cheetah takes the four-legged robot concept further, and is built purely for speed.  With assisted balance, Cheetah can reach speeds up to 28 mph.  Developers think we will soon see these speeds reached in an open field, giving the robot more balance built in.  The Cheetahs successor, WildCat, can already reach speeds of 16 mph without assistance. 

RHex is the third major development coming out of Boston Dynamics.  It is designed for the toughest of terrains, using six legs as opposed to four for better maneuverability. It also wears a sealed shell over its body, which protects its inner components from the elements.

 

Aquatic BotsFloating Jellyfish inspired Aquatic Bots

Biology as taught us much about designs that work.  Like Big Dog and the other all-terrain, mammalian robots, researchers have also swiped new design concepts from aquatic life.  A floating jellyfish-inspired design called the Mobile Fish Pen System has been developed by Lockhead Martin, and is used to help solve questions about the impact of pollution levels on ocean water quality, and the health of the sea-floor.  It collects data through integrating satellite communications, remote sensing data feeds, robotics, motor controls, and command and control situational awareness software- all while floating peacefully under the surface.

 

Atlas

Atlas, the Humanoid Robot

Though many different robot designs have been created in the 21st century, developers haven't forgotten about the original dream of making an artificial human.  Countries such as China, Japan and Germany have successfully implemented human-like robots to serve food and drink with some interactive ability, and the idea of creating even more advanced humanoids is becoming more and more popular. 

Boston Dynamics, the creators of Big Dog, is on the leading edge of building a human-like robot called Atlas.  The design idea for Atlas is similar to Big Dog, in that he will be able to navigate rough terrain. However, the real difference is that Atlas has the ability to climb. and to use tools like a human being.  Though the design is still in early stages, the technology used to create Atlas is absolutely ground breaking. Soon, designs such as this will be implemented for space exploration, such as NASA's Robonaut.

 

Incredible Bionic ManSmithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Incredible Bionic Man Project

Recently, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum released a project called The Incredible Bionic Man.  In an effort to better understand bionic prosthetics, a group of scientists have undertaken a project to build a Frankenstein of a robot. This “bionic man” will be made up of artificial organs including a pumping heart, hydraulic muscles, kidneys with working kidney cells, and even blood and veins. Though there is much more to learn,  much less implement this project, it is by far one of the most impressive and dramatic attempts at re-creating a human being to date.

 

 

 

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 158 - September 3795
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