Science fiction has a plethora of ideas about what happened in the past and what to expect from the future. Unfortunately, not all of those ideas are exactly plausible in reality. In Suspension of Disbelief, we’ll take a look at the best ideas from sci-fi movies, books, comics and videogames to see where (and if) they intersect with the real world.
The word “robot” doesn’t just refer to human-looking machines, though that’s probably what most people think of when the word is used. A robot is any machine capable of performing actions automatically, and yet humankind has been trying to recreate itself in these mechanized forms since we first started building complex tools. We’ve been building robots for centuries, inching slowly towards recreating ourselves and, in the meantime, we’ve been dreaming about what that might eventually look like, from the seemingly infinite artificial intelligence of droids like C-3PO to the perfect human facsimile of Roy Batty.
Though there are still numerous obstacles ahead of us (the uncanny valley continues to swallow up robots trying to pass themselves off as human), this history shows that the technologies we may take for granted now, like Siri acting like a person with her own interests or a toy robot walking across a living room floor, were also considered insurmountable barriers once.
Click through the gallery to see a short history of how robots began and how far we’ve come to recreating ourselves in machine forms.
Hailing from upstate New York, Cameron Wade is a freelance writer interested in movies, videogames, comic books and more. You can find his work at protogeektheblog.wordpress.com.
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Leonardo's robot (circa 1495)
Leonardo da Vinci dabbled in pretty much every science known to humankind and that includes robotics. Da Vinci designed one of the first robots, or, as they were called at the time, automata. It was a human-sized machine wearing Germanic armor controlled via rope and pulley that could sit, stand, wave, move its arms at the shoulders, elbows, wrists, and hands, and raise and lower its visor revealing a lifelike jaw underneath. Da Vinci's robot wasn't rediscovered until the 1950s when his infamously complex notes were finally deciphered. Like his ornithopter, there's no surviving proof that da Vinci ever made his robot, but, unlike the ornithopter, modern recreations have proven that the knight's design is functional, proving once again just how ahead of his time da Vinci was.
Image via Wikipedia
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Jaquet-Droz automata (1768-1774)
Pierre Jaquet-Droz, his son Henri-Louis, and their partner Jean-Frédéric Leschot were three Swiss watchmakers who built automata to entertain people and advertise for their business. Their three most famous creations, The Musician, The Draughtsman, and The Writer (pictured) were built between 1768 and 1774 and are still functioning at the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire of Neuchâtel, in Switzerland. The Musician, composed of 2,500 pieces, is a young woman who can actually play the organ, complete with a naturally "breathing" chest and eyes that move to follow her fingers. The Draughtsman, made of 2,000 pieces, is a small boy that can draw four different pictures: Louis XV, a noble couple (likely Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI), a dog and the words "my doggy" in French, and Cupid in a chariot pulled by a butterfly. He also wiggles in his chair and has small bellows inside him that allow him to blow dust off the paper he's working on. The Writer is probably their most notable and important creation though. Composed of 6,000 moving parts, all contained within his torso, The Writer inks his pen, shakes off the excess, and writes text up to 40 letters long over 4 lines. What's remarkable is that the text he writes can be changed by rearranging the pieces on the wheel on his back. This function is often noted as being an early form of programming, arguably making The Writer an ancestor to modern programmable computers.
Image via ThisIsColossal.com
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Eric was one of the first true robots in the modern sense of the word. Built in 1928 to open the annual exhibition of the Society of Model Engineers Society after the Duke of York couldn't attend, Eric looked like an armored knight, weighing over 100 pounds and standing 6-feet tall, with white light bulbs for eyes and red dots for pupils. His feet were fastened to a box that housed one of his motors, the other being in his chest. The letters painted on his chest stood for Rossum's Universal Robots, the name of the 1920 play that coined the word "robot" from the Czech word "robota," meaning forced, or indentured, labor. At the exhibition, Eric stood up, bowed, waved, turned his head to address the crowd, gave a four-minute opening talk, blue sparks crackling in his mouth as 35,000 volts of electricity coursed through him, and then took questions from the audience. How Eric could hear, interpret, and answer questions was a closely guarded secret of his inventors, but he could reportedly answer anywhere from 50 to 100 questions, including giving the time to within 30 seconds. After his premiere in London, Eric toured through the United States, during which one of his creators projected that Eric could eventually be used to provide information in train stations, answer telephones, work as a night watchman, and do any simple labor jobs. But after the tour, Eric was never seen again and what happened to him remains a mystery.
Image via Science Museum in London
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Gakutensoku, meaning "learning from the laws of nature," was the first robot built in Japan and it had a very different purpose than its Western counterparts. It was built in 1929 for the celebration of the Emperor Hirohito's ascension to the throne by Makoto Nishimura, a botanist and biologist who believed all things in nature were equal, including humanity's creations. Whereas Western robots were utilitarian, industrial, and unemotional contraptions, Gakutensoku was meant to be an expression of Nishimura's beliefs that robots could have aesthetic and artistic meaning. Its face was meant to be an amalgamation of characteristics of people from all over the world, symbolizing the equality of all people. Its eyes, eyebrows, and mouth could move, allowing for it to express emotion (unlike other early robots like Eric who had unmoving masks) and its face was made of rubber allowing its cheeks to puff out when the bellows in its torso "breathed." It sat 10-and-a-half feet tall with a massive desk in front of it and an arrow-shaped pen and a lamp called an "inspiration light" in its hands. An accompanying robotic bird named Kokukyocho ("bird informing dawn") would chirp causing Gakutensoku to close its eyes and look thoughtful. Then its inspiration light would illuminate, Gakutensoku would smile, and it would begin to write with its pen. Gakutensoku was a hit and toured expos in Japan before going to Germany in the 1930s where it went missing.
Image via CyberneticZoo.com
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For the 1939 New York World's Fair, the Westinghouse Electric Corporation wanted to demonstrate its engineering and electrical prowess and so it built Elektro, a walking, talking, smoking robot. Elektro stood seven-feet tall, weighed 250 pounds, had aluminum skin, and was controlled via voice commands given through a telephone handset. A hole through Elektro's chest proved that nobody was inside controlling him, and the light bulb that dangled from his wiring illuminated when he received a command. Elektro's right leg was straight, while his left leg bent at the knee, allowing him to scoot forward using small wheels on the bottom of his feet. He reportedly had a vocabulary of 700 words that would be played off of a 78-rpm record player as his mouth moved along to the words. Bellows in his chest allowed him to "smoke" lit cigarettes that were put into his mouth. Reportedly, cleaning out the bellows after Elektro's shows convinced one engineer to give up his own smoking habit. In 1940, Elektro got a pet dog named Sparko and the two went on tour throughout the United States as publicity and advertising for Westinghouse's home appliances. He was almost dismantled for parts and metal during the Second World War, but was saved by an engineer who hid him in his basement. In 1960, long after the excitement and hype around him had died down, Elektro was used in a B-movie called Sex Kittens Go to College where he played the role of Sam Thinko, alongside Mamie Van Doren. For decades after that, his head and body were taken by different owners and stored in a basement and barn respectively, but he's since been recovered and is currently housed at the Mansfield Memorial Museum in Ohio.
Photo by Scott Schaut/Mansfield Memorial Museum
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While Elektro was advertised as "walking," his movement was more akin to rolling. Actually getting a bipedal robot to walk under its own power was a particularly difficult hurdle for roboticists to overcome because the complex combination of balance, momentum, sensing of the environment, and adaptating to obstacles that our brains do automatically with every step isn't simple to compute and program. Wabot-1 was built in 1973 by the Waseda University in Tokyo and was the first bipedal walking humanoid robot that could actually map its environment and respond to it as it moved. Using sensors it could measure the distance between objects and itself and navigate around spaces, as well as use its hands to grab and pick things up.
Image via RoboticsToday.com
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Thanks to advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning, robots today are capable of more than just repeating recorded phrases prompted by command words. Nadine is a lifelike robotic receptionist built by Nanyang Technological University and Professor Nadia Thalmann (upon whom her appearance is based) to hold actual conversations with people. Nadine has soft skin with a working sense of touch, real hair, lips that move when she speaks, eyes that can track who she's talking to, and a Scottish accent. She can shake hands when prompted, respond to questions when asked, wave goodbye when people leave, express emotions, and generally hold normal conversations. But perhaps her most impressive feature is her ability to remember and learn from her experiences. Similar to other artificial assistants like Siri and Alexa, Nadine's "brain" isn't stored on her person but is actually in a large server that she communicates with to come up with answers and respond to situations. With this computational power, Nadine can recall past conversations, recognize people she's spoken to before, and learn what was successful before in order to improve her performance in the future.
Photo via Nanyang Technological University
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Perhaps the most recent robot to draw the public's attetion is Boston Dynamics' Atlas, who went viral last year thanks to a video that demonstrated its stability, balance, and object recognition primarily by knocking things out of its hands and knocking it over. While people all over the internet joked about Atlas leading a robot revolution against its abusive creators, the videos are actually a demonstration of just how far robotic bipedal walking has come. Unlike many other walking robots like Honda's famous ASIMO that work well enough in controlled environments, Atlas, who stands at five feet and nine inches and weighs 180 pounds, is designed to walk over difficult, uneven terrain, dynamically responding to different obstacles and surfaces, like, for example, hills in snowy woods. It also has rubber pads as hands that allow it to pick up and move objects, or get itself back on its feet when it falls over. Atlas can push open doors with its hands as it walks through them, and it doesn't require an external power source, meaning it can move between indoors and outdoors without issue. Sensors in its body and legs keep track of its balance, while lasers and stereo sensors in its head map the terrain and track obstacles to avoid or to interact with.
Image via Boston Dynamics/YouTube