A robot is a sophisticated machine or a set of machines working together, that performs certain tasks. Some people imagine robots as having two legs, a head, two arms with functional end effectors (hands), an artificial voice, and an electronic brain. The technical name for a humanoid robot is android. Androids are within the realm of technological possibility, but most robots are structurally simpler than others and don’t look or behave like, people.
An electronic brain also called artificial intelligence (AI), is more than mere fiction, thanks to the explosive evolution of computer hardware and software. But even the smartest computer these days would make a dog seem brilliant by comparison.
Some scientists think computers and robots might become as smart as, or smarter than, human beings. Others believe the human brain and mind are more complicated than anything that can be duplicated with electronic circuits.
In one of his early science-fiction stories, the famous author Isaac Asimov first mentioned the word robotics, along with three “fundamental rules” that all robots ought to obey:
First Law: A robot must not injure, or allow the injury of, any human being.
Second Law: A robot must obey all orders from humans, except orders that would contradict the First Law.
Third Law: A robot must protect itself, except when to do so would contradict the First Law or the Second Law.
These rules were first coined in the 1940s, but they are still considered good standards for robots nowadays.
Some researchers have analyzed the evolution of robots, marking progress according to so-called robot generations. This has been done with computers and integrated circuits, so it only seems natural to do it with robots, too. One of the first engineers to make formal mention of robot generations was the Japanese engineer Eiji Nakano.
1. First generation
According to Nakano, a first-generation robot is a simple mechanical arm without AI. Such machines have the ability to make precise motions at high speed, many times, for a long time. They have found widespread industrial application and have been around for more than half a century. These are the fast-moving systems that install rivets and screws in assembly lines, that solder connections on printed circuits, and that, in general, have taken over tedious, mind-numbing chores that used to be done by humans.
First-generation robots can work in groups if their actions are synchronized. The operation of these machines must be constantly watched because if they get out of alignment and are allowed to keep operating anyway, the result can be a series of bad production units. At worst, a misaligned and unsupervised robot might create havoc of a sort that you can hardly begin to imagine even if you let your mind run wild.
2. Second generation
A second-generation robot has some level of AI. Such a machine is equipped with pressure sensors, proximity sensors, tactile sensors, binocular vision, binaural hearing, and/or other devices that keep it informed about goings-on in the world around it. A computer called a robot controller processes the data from the sensors and adjusts the operation of the robot accordingly. The earliest second-generation robots came into common use around 1980.
Second-generation robots can stay synchronized with each other, without having to be overseen constantly by a human operator. Of course, periodic checking is needed with any machine, because things can always go wrong, and the more complex the system, the more ways it can malfunction.
3. Third generation
Nakano gave mention to third-generation robots, but in the years since the publication of his original paper, some things have changed. Two major avenues are developing for advanced robot technology. These are the autonomous robot and the insect robot. Both of these technologies hold promise for the future.
An autonomous robot can work on its own. It contains a controller and can do things largely without supervision, either by an outside computer or by a human being. A good example of this type of third-generation robot is the personal robot about which technophiles dream.
There are some situations in which autonomous robots don’t work well. In these cases, many simple robots, all under the control of one central computer, can be used. They function like ants in an anthill or bees in a hive. The individual machines are stupid, but the group as a whole is intelligent.
4. Fourth generation and beyond
Nakano did not write about anything past the third generation of robots. But we might mention a fourth-generation robot: a machine of a sort yet to be deployed. An example is a fleet or population of robots that reproduce and evolve. Past that, we might say that a fifth-generation robot is something humans haven’t yet dreamed of—or, if someone has thought up such a thing, he or she has not published the brainstorm.