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The Past, Present, and Future of Robotics. CMSC 479/679 May 3rd, 2010. 1400 BC. Babylonians develop the clepsydra, a clock that measures time using the flow of water. It's considered one of the first "robotic" devices in history. For centuries, inventors will refine the design. 322 BC.

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1400 bc
1400 BC

Babylonians develop the clepsydra, a clock that measures time using the flow of water. It's considered one of the first "robotic" devices in history. For centuries, inventors will refine the design.

322 bc
322 BC

The Greek philosopher Aristotle imagines the great utility of robots, writing, "If every tool, when ordered, or even of its own accord, could do the work that befits it then there would be no need either of apprentices for the master workers or of slaves for the lords."


Leonardo da Vinci designs a clockwork knight that will sit up, wave its arms and move its head and jaw. It's not certain whether the robot was ever built, but the design may constitute the first humanoid robot.


French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson builds a clockwork duck capable of flapping its wings, quacking, eating and digesting food.

Vaucanson’s Digesting Duck followed the principles of Descarte’s mechanistic universe, and bolstered the Enlightenment-era belief that animals were just meat machines, but automatons nonetheless. The ability to create life no longer was the domain of God and of living organisms, but was now captive in the hands of man’s genius. These ideas terrified and excited many people, but were one of the major ideological changes from a natural to a mechanistic world view.


Hungarian author and inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen builds "The Turk," a maplewood box with a mannequin, dressed in cloak and turban, protruding from the back. The device gains great fame as an automaton capable of playing chess against skilled opponents--until it is discovered that a human operator hides inside the box.


French silk weaver and inventor Joseph Marie Jacquard invents an automated loom that is controlled by punch cards. Within a decade it is being mass-produced, and thousands are in use across Europe.


Czech playwright Karl Capek popularizes the term "robot" in a play called "R.U.R. (Rossums Universal Robot)." The word comes from the Czech robota, which means drudgery or forced work. The play ends with robots taking over the earth and destroying their makers.


Film director Fritz Lang releases Metropolis, a silent film set in a futuristic urban dystopia. It features a female robot--the first to appear on the silver screen-who takes the shape of a human woman in order to destroy a labor movement.


American science fiction author Isaac Asimov publishes a short story, "Runaround," that introduces the "Three Laws of Robotics"--rules that every robot is programmed to obey:

A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given to 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 Law.


Industrial robotics pioneer George Devol files a patent for the first programmable robot and coins the term "universal automaton."


Unimate, the world's first industrial robot, goes to work on a General Motors assembly line.


The Artificial Intelligence Center at the Stanford Research Center begins development of Shakey, the first mobile robot. It is endowed with a limited ability to see and model its environment and is controlled by a computer that fills an entire room.


A fuzzy, batlike robot called Furby becomes the must-have toy of the holiday season. The $30 toys "evolve" over time, first speaking in gibberish but soon developing the use of preprogrammed English phrases. More than 27 million of the toys sell in a 12-month period.


Taz faces off against Thunderpudgy. Note use of illegal nuclear backpack for power by Thunderpudgy team.

swarm robotics
Swarm Robotics

Swarm roboticsis a new approach to the coordination of multirobot systems which consist of large numbers of relatively simple physical robots. The goal of this approach is to study the design of robots (both their physical body and their controlling behaviors) such that a desired collective behavior emerges from the inter-robot interactions and the interactions of the robots with the environment, inspired but not limited by the emergent behavior observed in social insects, called swarm intelligence.

nano robotics
  • What?
  • Why?
  • Issues?
    • Grey goo

Nanorobotics is the technology of creating machines or robots at or close to the scale of a nanometre (10-9metres).

dry adhesion
Dry Adhesion

Nature can be an inspiration for innovations in science. One such inspiration is comes from the gecko lizard which can climb on walls and ceilings of almost any suface texture. Rather than using it's claws or sticky substances, the gecko is able to stick to the walls through dry adhesion which requires no energy to hold it to the surface and leaves no residue. The dry adhesion force comes from surface contact forces such as Vanderwaals forces which act between all materials in contact. 

The gecko's trick to sticking to surfaces lies in its feet, specifically the very fine hairs on its toes. There are billions of these tiny hairs which make contact with the surface and create a huge collective surface area of contact. The hairs have physical propeties which let them bend and conform to a wide variety of surface roughnesses, meaning that the gecko's secret lies in the structure of these hairs themselves. By studying this structure, we are able to mimic the biological structures with synthetic materials.


In this case the robot 'hunted' slugs. The collected slugs would be fermented to produce biogas in a separate off-board digester unit. The gas would then be passed through methane fuel cell to generate electricity. The electricity would be stored in batteries and could be downloaded to a 'hungry' robot.

Apart from their relative ease of capture (compared to zebras), slugs were chosen because they are a major pest, are reasonably plentiful, have no hard shell or skeleton, and are reasonably large. It is also more technologically interesting to catch mobile prey rather than just grazing on plants.

ecobot ii
EcoBot II

With a top speed of 10 centimetres per hour, EcoBot II's roving prowess is still modest to say the least. "Every 12 minutes it gets enough energy to take a step forwards two centimetres and send a transmission back," says Melhuish.

  • Intelligent robots
  • Is it possible?
  • Would it be a good thing (think HAL and the Terminator movies)?
  • What are the implications socially and ethically?



the hard problem
The Hard Problem
  • The term hard problem of consciousness, coined by David Chalmers[1], refers to the "hard problem" of explaining why we have qualitative phenomenal experiences. It is contrasted with the "easy problems" of explaining the ability to discriminate, integrate information, report mental states, focus attention, etc.Various formulations of the "hard problem":
  • "Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all?”
  • "How is it that some organisms are subjects of experience?"・
  • "Why does awareness of sensory information exist at all?"・
  • "Why do qualia exist?”
  • "Why is there a subjective component to experience?”
  • "Why aren't we philosophical zombies?"