20 Things You Didn't Know About... Robots

Modern robots can respond to emotion and the smell of fine wines.

By Sean Markey, Corey S. Powell|Monday, April 02, 2007
(All images courtesy of Gordon Bennett)

1  “Robot” comes from the Czech word robota, meaning“drudgery,” and first appeared in the 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum’sUniversal Robots). The drama ends badly when the machines rise up andkill their creators, leaving a sole lonely survivor.

They say it was an accident. The first known case of robothomicide occurred in 1981, when a robotic arm crushed a JapaneseKawasaki factory worker.

3  More than a million industrial robots are now in use, nearly half of them in Japan.

4  Archytas of Tarentum, a pal of Plato’s, built a mechanicalbird driven by a jet of steam or compressed air—arguably history’sfirst robot—in the fifth century B.C.

Leonardo da Vinci drew up plans for an armored humanoidmachine in 1495. Engineer Mark Rosheim has created a functionalminiature version for NASA to help colonize Mars.

6  Slow but steady: The real Mars robots, Spirit andOpportunity, have logged 10.5 miles trudging across the Red Planet formore than three years. The unstoppable droids were built to last 90days.

7  The United States’ military corps of 4,000 robots includesreconnaissance Talon bots that scout for roadside bombs in Iraq andPackBots that poked around for Osama bin Laden’s hideout inAfghanistan. Apparently without much success.

8  PackBot’s manufacturer, iRobot, has also sold more than 2million Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners, with the sameenvironment-sensing technology.


9  Low tech vs. high tech: Taliban fighters in Afghanistanhave reportedly used ladders to flip over and disable the U.S. militaryrobots sent to scout out their caves.

10  Elektro, the world’s first humanoid robot, debuted in1939. Built by Westinghouse, the seven-foot-tall walking machine“spoke” more than 700 words stored on 78-rpm records to simulateconversation.

11  Life is tough in Tinseltown: Elektro later appeared in the 1960 B movie Sex Kittens Go to College.

12 R2-D2 is the only character that appears unchanged (by aging, say, or a funky black outfit) in all six Star Wars movies.

13  R2’s dark secret: It was played by actor Kenny Baker, who by the end was mostly given the boot and replaced by CGI.

14  Chris Melhuish of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory createdrobots that use bacteria-filled fuel cells to produce electricity fromrotten apples and dead flies. The goal: robots that forage for theirown food.

15  Mini Me: Australian researchers are trying to build amicrorobot that would mimic the swim stroke used by E. coli bacteria.It would be injected into a patient so it could take a biopsy from theinside.

16  Cybernetics professor Kevin Warwick calls himself theworld’s first cyborg, with computer chips implanted in his left arm. Hecan remotely operate doors, an artificial hand, and an electronicwheelchair.

17  Winebot, built by Japan’s NEC System Technologies and MieUniversity, can ID scads of different wines, cheeses, and horsd’oeuvres . . . up to a point. It recently mistook a reporter’s handfor prosciutto.

18  MIT’s Media Lab is trying to make robots personal,developing RoCo—a computer with a monitor for a head and neck—andLeonardo, a sort of super-Furby designed to respond to emotional cues.

19  No strings attached! Robotics expert Henrik Christensen predicts humans will be having sex with robots within four years.

20  Hans Moravec, founder of Carnegie Mellon’s RoboticsInstitute, predicts that robots will emerge as their own species by2040. “They could replace us in every essential task and, in principle,operate our society increasingly well without us,” he concludes, oddlycheery.

Comment on this article

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar

Log in to your account

Email address:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it emailed to you.

Not registered yet?

Register now for FREE. It takes only a few seconds to complete. Register now »