The first robots: History’s early automatons

If you ask most people what their experience with robots has been, you’ll likely receive a response ranging from minimal to none. Outside of the Robot Wars reboot and science-fiction movies, robots still feel as though they are implausible and futuristic, certainly when it comes to everyday life. In years to come, we may all have self-diving cars and robot assistants, but that day feels unfathomably distant. And yet, for something that feels so otherworldly and remote, robotics have a surprisingly long history.

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Automatons are the ancient ancestors of today’s robotic inventions; self-operating machines capable of performing a range of functions determined by their particular mechanism. Reports of these machines have existed for centuries, with one of the earliest proclaiming the existence of a life-size, humanoid figure complete with artificial organs and capable of singing and dancing built in China in the 10th century BC. While it is difficult to verify the existence of some of these early automatons, others have received more substantial historical backing.

Leonardo da Vinci used his interest in mechanical engineering to design, and in all probability build, a mechanical knight that was capable of moving its arms, legs and head, as well as “speaking” via an automatic drum-roll. Leonardo’s designs for the machine were discovered in the 1950s and faithful reconstruction has given credence to claims that the robot was presented to the Milanese court in 1495.

Perhaps even more impressive, The Writer automaton is capable of writing any text up to 40 characters long. Designed by Pierre Jaquet-Droz in the late 18th century and made up of more than 6,000 parts all squeezed into the replica model of a small boy, the programmable nature of the automaton has seen it lauded as the precursor to modern computers.

Moving beyond the mechanical

While it is easy to see the connection between Da Vinci’s knight and, say, the pre-programmed industrial robots used today, the future of the technology is already looking to outgrow its humble beginnings. Artificial intelligence is likely to be at the heart of robotics development and will surely make our present day efforts look relatively primitive.

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Whereas the early automatons were made up of a collection of cogs, gears, levers and pulleys, robots of the future are likely to be more digital than mechanical. The robotic creations of the future are just as likely to draw from the AI-related fields of linguistics, logic, behaviourism and software development, as they are nuts and bolts mechanisms. Already there are attempts being made to create robots that learn from experience, build upon cloud intelligence and recognise human emotions.

While these robots of the future may differ markedly from the automatons of the past, in many ways they stem from the same ambition. While automatons mimicked the likeness and behaviour of humans, the robots of the future will be able to do this while also emulating, and perhaps surpassing the human mind. It seems that mankind’s need to create is centuries, even millennia old, and no matter how complex our robot inventions become, they will certainly owe a great deal to their mechanical forebears made all those years ago.

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