A robot is a virtual or mechanical artificial agent. In practice, it is usually an electro-mechanical machine which is guided by computer or electronic programming, and is thus able to do tasks on its own. Another common characteristic is that by its appearance or movements, a robot often conveys a sense that it has intent or agency of its own.
When civilised societies started, nearly all production and effort was the result of human labour. As mechanical means of performing functions were discovered, and mechanics and complex mechanisms were developed, the need for human labour was reduced. Initially, machinery was used for repetitive functions such as lifting water and grinding grain. With technological advances more complex machines were slowly developed, such as those invented by Hero of Alexandria. They were not widely adopted as human labour, particularly slave labour, was still inexpensive compared to the capital-intensive machines.
In the second half of the second millennium man began to develop more complex machines as well as rediscovering the Greek engineering methods. Men such as Leonardo Da Vinci in 1495 through to Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739 have made plans for, and built, automata and robots leading to books of designs such as the Japanese Karakuri zui (Illustrated Machinery) in 1796. As mechanical techniques developed through the Industrial age we find more practical applications such as Nikola Tesla in 1898 who designed a radio-controlled torpedo and the Westinghouse Electric Corporation creation Televox in 1926. From here we find a more android development as designers tried to mimic more human-like features including designs such as those of biologist Makoto Nishimura in 1929 and his creation Gakutensoku, which cried and changed its facial expressions, and the more crude Elektro from Westinghouse in 1938.
Electronics now became the driving force of development instead of mechanics with the advent of the first electronic autonomous robots created by William Grey Walter in Bristol, England in 1948. The first digital and programmable robot was invented by George Devol in 1954 and was ultimately called the Unimate. Devol sold the first Unimate to General Motors in 1960 where it was used to lift pieces of hot metal from die casting machines in a plant in Trenton, New Jersey.
Since then we have seen robots finally reach a more true assimilation of all technologies to produce robots such as ASIMO which can walk and move like a human. Robots have replaced slaves in the assistance of performing those repetitive and dangerous tasks which humans prefer not to do or unable to do due to size limitations or even those such as in outer space or at the bottom of the sea where humans could not survive the extreme environments.
Robots come in those two basic forms: Those which are used to make or move things, such as Industrial robots or mobile or servicing robots and those which are used for research into human-like robots such as ASIMO and TOPIO as well as those into more defined and specific roles such as Nano robots and Swarm robots.
Man has developed a fear of the autonomous robot and how it may react in society, such as Shelley's Frankenstein and the EATR, and yet we still use robots in a wide variety of tasks such as vacuuming floors, mowing lawns, cleaning drains, investigating other planets, building cars, entertainment and in warfare.
The word robot was introduced to the public by the Czech interwar writer Karel Čapek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), published in 1920. The play begins in a factory that makes artificial people called robots, though they are closer to the modern ideas of androids, creatures who can be mistaken for humans. They can plainly think for themselves, though they seem happy to serve. At issue is whether the robots are being exploited and the consequences of their treatment.
Karel Čapek himself did not coin the word. He wrote a short letter in reference to an etymology in the Oxford English Dictionary in which he named his brother, the painter and writer Josef Čapek, as its actual originator.
In an article in the Czech journal Lidové noviny in 1933, he explained that he had originally wanted to call the creatures laboři ("workers", from Latin labor). However, he did not like the word, and sought advice from his brother Josef, who suggested "roboti". The word robota means literally "work", "labor" or "corvée", "serf labor", and figuratively "drudgery" or "hard work" in Czech and many Slavic languages. Traditionally the robota was the work period a serf (corvée) had to give for his lord, typically 6 months of the year. The origin of the word is the Old Church Slavonic rabota "servitude" ("work" in contemporary Bulgarian and Russian), which in turn comes from the Indo-European root *orbh-. Serfdom was outlawed in 1848 in Bohemia, so at the time Čapek wrote R.U.R., usage of the term robota had broadened to include various types of work, but the obsolete sense of "serfdom" would still have been known.
The word robotics, used to describe this field of study, was coined by the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. Asimov and John W. Campbell created the "Three Laws of Robotics" which are a recurring theme in his books. These have since been used by many others to define laws used in fact and fiction. Introduced in his 1942 short story "Runaround" the Laws state the following:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey any 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.
Many ancient mythologies include artificial people, such as the mechanical servants built by the Greek god Hephaestus (Vulcan to the Romans), the clay golems of Jewish legend and clay giants of Norse legend, and Galatea, the mythical statue of Pygmalion that came to life. In Greek drama, Deus Ex Machina was contrived as a dramatic device that usually involved lowering a deity by wires into the play to solve a seemingly impossible problem.
According to Mark E. Rosheim, "The beginning of robots may be traced to the great Greek engineer Ctesibius (c. 270 BC). ... Ctesibius applied a knowledge of pneumatics and hydraulics to produce the first organ and water clocks with moving figures." In the 4th century BC, the Greek mathematician Archytas of Tarentum postulated a mechanical steam-operated bird he called "The Pigeon". Hero of Alexandria (10–70 AD), a Greek mathematician and inventor, created numerous user-configurable automated devices, and described machines powered by air pressure, steam and water. Su Song built a clock tower in China in 1088 featuring mechanical figurines that chimed the hours.
In the 3rd century BC text of the Lie Zi, there is a curious account on automata involving a much earlier encounter between King Mu of Zhou (Chinese emperor 10th century BC) and a mechanical engineer known as Yan Shi , an 'artificer'. The latter proudly presented the king with a life-size, human-shaped figure of his mechanical 'handiwork' made of leather, wood, and artificial organs.
Al-Jazari (1136–1206), a Muslim inventor during the Artuqid dynasty, designed and constructed a number of automated machines, including kitchen appliances, musical automata powered by water, and programmable automata. The robots appeared as four musicians on a boat in a lake, entertaining guests at royal drinking parties. His mechanism had a programmable drum machine with pegs (cams) that bumped into little levers that operated percussion instruments. The drummer could be made to play different rhythms and different drum patterns by moving the pegs to different locations.
The Japanese craftsman Hisashige Tanaka (1799–1881), known as "Japan's Edison" or "Karakuri Giemon", created an array of extremely complex mechanical toys, some of which served tea, fired arrows drawn from a quiver, and even painted a Japanese kanji character. In 1898 Nikola Tesla publicly demonstrated a radio-controlled torpedo. Based on patents for "teleautomation", Tesla hoped to develop it into a weapon system for the US Navy.
In 1926, Westinghouse Electric Corporation created Televox, the first robot put to useful work. They followed Televox with a number of other simple robots, including one called Rastus, made in the crude image of a black man. In the 1930s, they created a humanoid robot known as Elektro for exhibition purposes, including the 1939 and 1940 World's Fairs. In 1928, Japan's first robot, Gakutensoku, was designed and constructed by biologist Makoto Nishimura.
The first electronic autonomous robots were created by William Grey Walter of the Burden Neurological Institute at Bristol, England in 1948 and 1949. They were named Elmer and Elsie. These robots could sense light and contact with external objects, and use these stimuli to navigate.
The first truly modern robot, digitally operated and programmable, was invented by George Devol in 1954 and was ultimately called the Unimate. Devol sold the first Unimate to General Motors in 1960, and it was installed in 1961 in a plant in Trenton, New Jersey to lift hot pieces of metal from a die casting machine and stack them.
Commercial and industrial robots are now in widespread use performing jobs more cheaply or with greater accuracy and reliability than humans. They are also employed for jobs which are too dirty, dangerous or dull to be suitable for humans. Robots are widely used in manufacturing, assembly and packing, transport, earth and space exploration, surgery, weaponry, laboratory research, and mass production of consumer and industrial goods.
The word robot can refer to both physical robots and virtual software agents, but the latter are usually referred to as bots. There is no consensus on which machines qualify as robots but there is general agreement among experts, and the public, that robots tend to do some or all of the following: move around, operate a mechanical limb, sense and manipulate their environment, and exhibit intelligent behavior — especially behavior which mimics humans or other animals.
There is no one definition of robot which satisfies everyone and many people have their own. For example Joseph Engelberger, a pioneer in industrial robotics, once remarked: "I can't define a robot, but I know one when I see one." According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica a robot is "any automatically operated machine that replaces human effort, though it may not resemble human beings in appearance or perform functions in a humanlike manner". Merriam-Webster describes a robot as a "machine that looks like a human being and performs various complex acts (as walking or talking) of a human being", or a "device that automatically performs complicated often repetitive tasks", or a "mechanism guided by automatic controls".
While there is no single correct definition of "robot," a typical robot will have several, or possibly all, of the following characteristics.
It is an electric machine which has some ability to interact with physical objects and to be given electronic programming to do a specific task or to do a whole range of tasks or actions. It may also have some ability to perceive and absorb data on physical objects, or on its local physical environment, or to process data, or to respond to various stimuli. This is in contrast to a simple mechanical device such as a gear or a hydraulic press or any other item which has no processing ability and which does tasks through purely mechanical processes and motion.
For robotic engineers, the physical appearance of a machine is less important than the way its actions are controlled. The more the control system seems to have agency of its own, the more likely the machine is to be called a robot. An important feature of agency is the ability to make choices. Higher-level cognitive functions, though, are not necessary, as shown by ant robots.
* A clockwork car is never considered a robot.
* A mechanical device able to perform some preset motions but with no ability to adapt (an automaton) is rarely considered a robot.
* A remotely-operated vehicle is sometimes considered a robot (or telerobot).
* A car with an onboard computer, like Bigtrak, which could drive in a programmable sequence, might be called a robot.
* A self-controlled car which could sense its environment and make driving decisions based on this information, such as the 1990s driverless cars of Ernst Dickmanns or the entries in the DARPA Grand Challenge, would quite likely be called a robot.
* A sentient car, like the fictional KITT, which can make decisions, navigate freely and converse fluently with a human, is usually considered a robot.
However, for many laymen, if a machine appears to be able to control its arms or limbs, and especially if it appears anthropomorphic or zoomorphic (e.g. ASIMO or Aibo), it would be called a robot.
* A player piano is rarely characterized as a robot.
* A CNC milling machine is very occasionally characterized as a robot.
* A factory automation arm is almost always characterized as an industrial robot.
* An autonomous wheeled or tracked device, such as a self-guided rover or self-guided vehicle, is almost always characterized as a mobile robot or service robot.
* A zoomorphic mechanical toy, like Roboraptor, is usually characterized as a robot.
* A mechanical humanoid, like ASIMO, is almost always characterized as a robot, usually as a service robot.
Even for a 3-axis CNC milling machine using the same control system as a robot arm, it is the arm which is almost always called a robot, while the CNC machine is usually just a machine. Having eyes can also make a difference in whether a machine is called a robot, since humans instinctively connect eyes with sentience. However, simply being anthropomorphic is not a sufficient criterion for something to be called a robot. A robot must do something; an inanimate object shaped like ASIMO would not be considered a robot.