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For many people, robots are the stuff of Hollywood and science fiction: human-like creations that can think, feel, and make decisions on their own. In reality, robots are all around us, though not in the ways we imagine. Robots are used to build cars, work in factories, ice cakes, replace lost limbs, and even vacuum our floors. In the past 50 years, robots have gone from simple mechanical arms used to remove die-cast materials from molds to machines capable of utilizing laser technology, adapting and performing complex tasks without being programmed beforehand. Robots have become a vital, if invisible, part of our daily lives, but they have been around far longer than most people know.
Though the word "robot" wasn't coined until 1920, the idea of a machine that worked with little to no human interaction is far older. In Greek mythology, the god Hephaestus was attended by female servants forged from gold and Daidalos of Athens created statues that were "endowed with motion." These ancient myths were said to have inspired the Greek engineer and physicist Ctesibius of Alexandria, who lived in 250 BC. Ctesibius is best known for his improvements on the water clock, a device used to tell time, and the water organ. Centuries later, Ctesibius's simple machines gave way to clocks and clockworks that used simple gears and springs to create movement.
The word "robot" was created by Czech playwright Karel Capek to describe artificial beings used to perform tasks humans shunned, and the word was quickly adopted by writers such as Isaac Asimov as well as scientists. The world's first robot company, Unimation, was created in 1956 by Joseph Engelberger and George Devol, and in 1962, the world's first industrial robot (built by Unimation) was used by General Motors. The precision and speed of the General Motors robot showed the world what they could do, and many companies began following suit, replacing human workers with robots to perform simple, repetitive tasks. Robotics continued to expand through the latter half of the 20th century. Companies have created advanced robots for industrial use, such as ones that use laser technology to process plastics and judge distances, and firms work on expanding their use into the home, for tasks such as laundry.
There is no precise agreed-upon definition for what a robot is: As robots grow more complex, the definition changes. A simple definition for a robot is a machine controlled by a computer that can complete tasks that may or may not be pre-programmed. Robots can be directly controlled by a human operator or controlled solely by a computer. There are many types of robots, and just like their definition, attempting to break them into types is tricky. Some classify robots by their application, while others define robot type by how they move or by operating system and build. Types of robots include pre-programmed, teleoperated, augmenting, and autonomous.
Pre-programmed robots have been programmed to complete a specific task. Most industrial robots fall into this category, as they do not need a great deal of programming to complete a single task, such as welding. Teleoperated robots are controlled remotely by a human being. Medical robots like those used in surgery, military robots used to defuse bombs or clear houses, and service robots fall into this category. Augmenting robots are like teleoperated robots in that they are controlled by humans, but unlike the previous type, augmenting robots are connected to the human body. Examples of augmenting robots are robotic arms used to replace limbs, extend a person's reach, or increase basic abilities like strength. Autonomous robots do not require direct human input to complete a task. A computer determines the task that needs to be completed, examines the environment, and determines the best way to do that. Common robots of this type are vacuuming robots, those used to clean swimming pools, and even some children's toys.
There is nothing like a little friendly competition, and the field of robotics is no exception. For robot enthusiasts, there are competitions held around the world. Some are friendly competitions held by robotics clubs focused on programming and articulation, while others are televised events like those of the Robot Combat League. Robotics firms and colleges also hold competitions, many of them yearly, and even offer cash prizes. Perhaps the most prestigious of these is the DARPA Grand Challenge, which offers a $2 million prize to the winner.