On Robots

Blitz Magazine, May 2000

They scale mountains, explore oceans, roam galaxies and build cars. They also shoot hoops and retrieve slippers.


Labour unionists don’t like ‘em; Hollywood has made much of them. But we need them—they go where we can’t, do what we don’t want to. If something goes wrong, all that’s lost is a bunch of hardware.

A robot is a computerized machine that is capable of performing tasks that are too complex for a non-human mind, and that non-computerized machines are incapable of performing. The creation of a true robot was thus impossible before the invention of the computer in the 1940s, and its manufacture was not practical until the 1970s. But the concept of the robot—an artificial device that mimics the actions and possibly the appearance of a human being—is probably as old as the human imagination. In Homer’s Iliad, Hephaistos, the Greek god of the forge, is described as having for helpers “a couple of maids made of gold exactly like living girls; they have sense in their heads, they can speak and use their muscles, they can spin and weave and do their work…”

The word ‘robot’ was coined in 1920 by Czech playwright Karel Capek. He wrote the play R.U.R., about an Englishman who manufactured artificial human beings to do the arduous labour of the world so that real humans could pursue lives of leisure. ‘Robot’ is the Czech word for ‘forced workers or slaves’.

The term ‘robotics’ was first used in print in Isaac Asimov’s Runaround, a story which appeared in the March 1942 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. In this, Asimov presented the Fundamental Laws of Robotics:

1.              A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2.              A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3.              A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

 ‘Amusing, but stunningly prescient. Today, robots gather information about their environment and use that information to follow instructions to do work. They move via locomotion and manipulation and are capable of planning their own actions. They have vision systems and three modes of sensing. They have voices and vocabularies. Their thought process is algorithmic (ours is heuristic) and, like all computers, they require explicit instructions for every task—nuance will jam ‘em.

People have long been fascinated with the connection between man and machine. If you’re one of these people, you can check out an interactive exhibit opening May 27th at Vancouver’s Science World. Robotics explores the similarities between humans and robots, and shows how robots sense, think and act. You’ll see how robots increase productivity, create a safer workplace, provide high-end career opportunities and enrich lives. H.G. Wells would be so proud.