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The 7 robots that transformed the history of robotics

The term “robot” was first used in 1920: writer Karel Čapek made it history by placing it in one of his science fiction plays. “RUR” (Rossumovi univerzální roboti), evokes the “Rossum Universal Robots”. It was actually his brother Josef who invented this term by deriving it from the Czech word robota, meaning “labour” or “serf”. The play tells the story of a factory in which thousands of synthetic humanoids replaced the workers. They work so cheaply and tirelessly that they have reduced the production costs of fabric manufacturing by 80%.

Barely appeared, the word already carried its share of existential fears – founded or not –, such as that of the robot which will one day replace the human being. One hundred years later, which robots have gone down in history? A look back at these iconic machines that have marked minds or science… failing to take power.

Unimate, the first industrial robot

Once the robot’s imaginary posed by RUR, it was not until the 1950s that the first truly operational mechanical machine appeared. Named Unimate (for “Universal Automation”, universal automation), it was a robotic arm for industrial purposes. A 1.5 ton articulated mechanical arm designed by the American George Devol and Joseph Engelberger. The latter, engineer and fan of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, is considered the father of modern robotics.

Thanks to him, Unimate went from prototype status to that of the first industrial robot in 1961. After an initial test on a General Motors production line, 66 robots were ordered and used by the automobile manufacturer. Their job? Catching metal parts at very high temperatures and moving them to cooling baths. Other manufacturers – such as Chrysler, Ford Motor, BMW, Volvo, Mercedes Benz, Fiat and even Renault – will also adopt the Unimation robot.

This creation becomes so popular that the robot is regularly invited to television. Joseph Engelberger made sure he put on the show for the general public. This is how the Unimate has been seen hitting a golf ball to make it fall into a cup or becoming the conductor of the Tonight Show Band. The aura of the Unimate even crosses borders, to the point that the license was granted in 1966 to Finland’s Nokia for Scandinavia and Eastern Europe and then, in 1969, to Japanese Kawasaki. This one will eventually dethrone Unimation with its own robotic creations in the 1980s.

Joseph Engelberger, who died in 2015, didn’t like people saying that robots were going to steal all the jobs. On the contrary : “Robots are taking away inhuman jobs that we assign to people”he retorted.

©University of Limerick

Shakey, the first autonomous robot

In 1972, the Artificial Intelligence Center of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in California imagined the first truly autonomous robot. Named Shakey – because he wobbled when he moved – he was able to break down simple commands into a specific sequence of actions needed to achieve a goal with some logic. What made Shakey a truly unique robot that stood out was that he was able to devise a plan to achieve his goal. He could analyze his environment, then define the different steps: move straight, then right. Then go up the ramp. Then go to the wall and press the switch to turn off the light, for example.

Until now, robots performed each task one after the other and on instruction. This planning ability was a game-changer for future robots. And, despite his still limited functions, Shakey has been called a “electronic first person”. Today, he is best remembered as the first machine to combine robotics and artificial intelligence.

©Marshall Astor

WABOT, the first anthropomorphic robot

After the United States, direction Japan. Designed in 1973 by Waseda University (Tokyo), WABOT-1 is the very first anthropomorphic robot with bipedal walking. Its name is the contraction of Waseda (Wa) and Robot (Bot). He was able to control his limbs, possessed a vision system, and was able to communicate. Speaking Japanese, he also had the ability to measure distance and locate objects using external sensors. With his touch sensors, he could grab an object and move by activating his lower limbs. The WABOT-1 was estimated to have the mental faculties of a one-and-a-half-year-old child.

Its successor, the WABOT-2, was born in 1980. The engineers had set themselves the challenge of creating an artist robot capable of playing a musical instrument, in this case a piano. He could converse with a person, read a musical score (thanks to his camera as a head) and play airs of medium difficulty on an electronic organ thanks to his dexterity. But this musical robot was also endowed with a certain intelligence, since it was able to accompany a person while listening to them sing. The WABOT-2 is considered the world’s first “personal robot”.

©Waseda University

Sojourner, the first robot on Mars

In the wake of ABE – a submersible robot capable of exploring the oceans in total autonomy – in 1995, the Sojourner made an impression in 1997. On July 4 of that year, the wheels of the rover weighing only 10.6 kilos touched the ground of the planet Mars, after a long journey aboard the space probe Pathfinder from NASA. It was then the very first machine to move on Martian soil. The goal here was not to create an android – a human-like robot – but to have a sturdy machine built for the unknown. Sojourner could make her own decisions when faced with unpredictable situations (a large rock in her path, for example).

During its “small journey”, over an area of ​​about 250 square meters, because its range of action was limited, Sojourner took some 550 photos of Mars, analyzed the chemical data of 16 rock samples and carried out measurements atmospheric. It was 83 days before NASA teams lost contact with the rover, even though scientists estimated it would only operate for a week. He thus paved the way for his successors, Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity.

stay (before) with a rover-test (to the left) and Curiosity (to the right).©NASA

Kismet, the first sociable robot

In 2000, this head made a lot of noise. A robot that is only a head even though humanoid robots have been multiplying for several years, this may come as a surprise. But it is above all for its sociable function that Kismet made an impression. This prototype imagined by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was indeed able to see and hear what his interlocutor was doing, to interpret this information and then to react appropriately.

His synthetic voice, whose tone could be modulated to express joy, sadness or even surprise, was supplemented by correlated facial expressions (happiness, anger, interest, boredom, etc.). A multitude of sensors, real-time data analysis and an ability to learn so as not to repeat an error (lack of language, for example) made it possible to animate Kismet. Additionally, the robot had 21 motors that controlled an expressive pair of yellow eyebrows, red lips, pink ears, and large blue eyes. “The goal is to build a socially intelligent machine that learns things the way we do, through social interactions”, explained at the time Cynthia Breazeal, head of the Kismet project at the MIT artificial intelligence laboratory. It is believed that Kismet had the psychological abilities of a young child.


From BigDog to Atlas, Boston Dynamics’ all-terrain robots

Boston Dynamics started by entertaining us with its quadruped robots capable of running and jumping. Then the smile faded to give way to a kind of uneasiness, even fear. Today, the American start-up notably supplies the Pentagon with military robots. However, when it debuted in 2004, BigDog made YouTube happy. This headless four-legged robot was seen running through leafy undergrowth, climbing steep hills without difficulty, advancing through a thick layer of snow or even jumping among piles of bricks. A real all-terrain robot, able to recover in the blink of an eye if someone pushed it violently to make it fall.

BigDog was then followed by Cheetah, WildCat and then Atlas. The latter, unveiled in 2013, is an autonomous humanoid robot capable of doing Parkour. That is to say to jump, run, tilt, make somersaults while moving on various surfaces and among various obstacles. This android can also dance with movements very close to those of a human being. Incidentally, he can also carry packages, open doors, drive a vehicle, etc.

According to statements by the United States Department of Defense, Atlas is not intended for use in warfare, but rather as an aid to emergency services in searching for and rescuing humans in dangerous environments. We can imagine a building that threatens to collapse, a nuclear incident like in Chernobyl or Fukushima, etc.

Ameca, the most “humane” robot to date

In 2022 at CES in Las Vegas, the British start-up Engineered Arts surprised everyone with its humanoid robot Ameca. It must be said that the range and precision of the expressions on his face are, to say the least, disturbing due to their extreme realism. But Ameca is not just a face. The robot also has a fully motorized body, perfectly imitated hands and can hold a real conversation with a human being. In early September, Engineered Arts unveiled a video in which one of its engineers discusses with the robot.

The latter now integrates the conversation engine with artificial intelligence GPT-3, developed by the company OpenAI. In the video below, the conversations were not pre-written or rehearsed. At times Ameca can be seen taking short breaks (at 5 minutes in the video, when the person asks him what makes him who he is). This is the time for the robot to understand the question asked, prepare its answer and then adapt its facial expressions accordingly. Dizzy.