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The image usually thought of by the word robot is that of a mechanical
being, somewhat human in shape. Common in science fiction, robots are generally
depicted as working in the service of people, but often escaping the control of
the people and doing them harm.
The word robot comes from the Czech writer Karel Capek's 1921 play “
R.U.R.” (which stands for "Rossum's Universal Robots"), in which mechanical
beings made to be slaves for humanity rebel and kill their creators. From this,
the fictional image of robots is sometimes troubling, expressing the fears that
people may have of a robotized world over which they cannot keep control. The
history of real robots is rarely as dramatic, but where developments in robotics
may lead is beyond our imagination.
Robots exist today. They are used in a relatively small number of
factories located in highly industrialized countries such as the United States,
Germany, and Japan. Robots are also being used for scientific research, in
military programs, and as educational tools, and they are being developed to aid
people who have lost the use of their limbs. These devices, however, are for
the most part quite different from the androids, or humanlike robots, and other
robots of fiction. They rarely take human form, they perform only a limited
number of set tasks, and they do not have minds of their own. In fact, it is
often hard to distinguish between devices called robots and other modern
Although the term robot did not come into use until the 20th century,
the idea of mechanical beings is much older. Ancient myths and tales talked
about walking statues and other marvels in human and animal form. Such objects
were products of the imagination and nothing more, but some of the mechanized
figures also mentioned in early writings could well have been made. Such
figures, called automatons, have long been popular.
For several centuries, automatons were as close as people came to
constructing true robots. European church towers provide fascinating examples
of clockwork figures from medieval times, and automatons were also devised in
China. By the 18th century, a number of extremely clever automatons became
famous for a while. Swiss craftsman Pierre Jacquet-Droz, for example, built
mechanical dolls that could draw a simple figure or play music on a miniature
organ. Clockwork figures of this sort are rarely made any longer, but many of
the so called robots built today for promotional or other purposes are still
basically automatons. They may include technological advances such as radio
control, but for the most part they can only perform a set routine of
entertaining but otherwise useless actions.
Modern robots used in workplaces arose more directly from the Industrial
Revolution and the systems for mass production to which it led. As factories
developed, more and more machine tools were built that could perform some simple,
precise routine over and over again on an assembly line. The trend toward
increasing automation of production processes proceeded through the development
of machines that were more versatile and needed less tending. One basic
principle involved in this development was what is known as feedback, in which
part of a machine's output is used as input to the machine as well, so that it
can make appropriate adjustments to changing operating conditions.
The most important 20th-century development, for automation and for
robots in particular, was the invention of the computer. When the transistor
made tiny computers possible, they could be put in individual machine tools.
Modern industrial robots arose from this linking of computer with machine. By
means of a computer, a correctly designed machine tool can be programmed to
perform more than one kind of task. If it is given a complex manipulator arm,
its abilities can be...
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