"Real" Robots

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Robots are one of those predictions that always seemed to be a slam dunk dead cert; at least, as far as the basics were concerned.  Sure, there might be some tricky bits to work out when it came to making a machine that could speak or do maths, but no one was expecting miracles.  One that could walk, carry trays, drive cars, or go on a rampage of destruction when commanded would do just fine.  If you look through the popular science articles from the '20s right up to the present day you'll find legions of articles confidently predicting that we'd have robot servants and companions within a decade, no problem.  Unfortunately, the decades keep rolling by and I still don't have a decent 'bot to call my own.

You can see just in this photo how the tortoise managed to find its way into its hutch to get an electric snack. 

Not that there was a lack of trying.  From the 1940s on there has been a tremendous amount of work being done in cybernetics and robotics.  Take the case, for example, of Elmer and Elsie.  The creation of the pioneer cyberneticist Grey Walters, They were one of the first true robots ever built: Machina Speculatrix.  These robotic "tortoises" used a simple mechanism of photoelectric cells, motors, touch sensors, and relays to produce remarkably animal-like behaviour. 

Elmer and Elsie would roll about the floor in search of light, which they were attracted to.  They were also repelled by light that was too strong, so they would run toward open lights, then turn away, then circle back.  They would dance about like this until their batteries ran down, at which point their aversion to light would be overcome by "hunger" and they would race back to the lighted charger in their "hutch" for a quick electric meal.
You can see in this one how some people took up with the idea and ran with it.  Any day now houses across America were expected to be overrun with electronic pests mooching off of mains sockets and running around with scissors.  Somehow this is less like an advancement than a visit by my relatives.

This sort of thing made engineers optimistic about the chances for making true robots, but the goal has kept eluding them ever since.  Thing is, robots are trickier affairs than we thought.  A lot of the things that were thought to be easy to do were actually very hard and a lot of things that were thought hard turned out to be relatively easy.  Contrary to popular science and science fiction, getting a robot to speak or do arithmetic isn't the hard part. 

Heck, the theoretical roots of computing were already pretty far along by the time of Charles Babbage back in the 1830s and things like playing chess and the like were inherently logical, which made stating and solving the problem less daunting than it seemed.  On the other hand, things like walking, picking up objects, or even building a robot that could see and understand what was going on around it are extremely difficult because they have to take into account so many variables and so much which is inherently vague.   We think that standing, for instance, is easy, but doing square roots is hard.  That's only because standing is something that we do literally by reflex through long practice and evolution, while doing square roots requires a good deal of training and practice to develop the necessary skills.  It turns out, however, that the mechanics of arithmetic are nothing but simple logical steps that a machine can easily follow, while standing is an intricate balancing act that requires constant correction and counter correction merely to stay still, never mind move.

In 1940, Isaac Asimov wrote a story in which a robot was built as a nursemaid for an eight-year old girl.  The robot could play hide and seek, pretend to be an aeroplane, appreciate stories, recognise different individuals, and understand colloquial English, but because it was "primitive" it couldn't speak.  Meanwhile, an "advanced" robot that could speak was, in fact, a great collection of immobile electronic boxes that could barely manage the job of a "speak and spell" because speech is "hard."  I can't think of any engineer that wouldn't take the primitive robot over the advanced one any day.

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