From the Maschinenmensch in Fritz Lang & # 39; s Metropolis, to C3P0, the Terminator and Wall-E, fictional robots have delighted and fascinated people for over a century, horrified. They pop up in everything from 19th-century literature to the horror B films of the 1950s.
Robots began to invade the collective consciousness of the Western world as a result of the mechanization of production during the industrial revolution, when people looked at machines to take on the subordinate work of their ancestors.
Based on the Czech & # 39; robota & # 39 ;, which means serviceability, the word & # 39; robot & # 39; first used by the Czech writer Karel Capek in his RUR from 1921 (Rossum & # 39; s Universal Robots), with autonomous and semi-autonomous machines that & # 39; automaat & # 39; are mentioned up to this point.
Capek's pioneering game sees a serving class of robots rebel against their human masters, leading to the extinction of the human race. RUR was immensely popular at the time and cast a dystopian light on robotics, contributing to the rising fear that androids might one day get past their creators who are just as prevalent today, with ever more intelligent machines that surprise us with their possibilities, and us doing questions really means being human.
We now live in a world where robots are programmed to help us with chores, to entertain us, to provide company and even to take care of us on our old age; but while robotics is often regarded as a relatively new field of science and technology, it actually has its roots in the ancient world, with a history of more than 1,000 years.
The Islamic golden age
The idea of bronze sculptures and figurines of clay that come to life goes back to prehistoric Norwegian folklore, but the idea of mechanical servants and companions came from ancient scholars, including the Islamic inventor Ismail al-Jazari, who lived during the Artuqid Dynasty in the 12th century. and 13th century.
Al-Jazari, born in 1136 in what is now Turkey, was a polychate that excelled in various disciplines, including mathematics, art, mechanics and inventions. He was one of many brilliant scholars who came forward during the Islamic Golden & # 39; Age & # 39 ;, the period between the 8th and 14th centuries in which the Islamic world flourished culturally, economically, politically and scientifically. By contrast, around the beginning of this period, after the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe was embroiled in the dark Middle Ages.
It was the perfect environment for al-Jazari to produce in 1206 what is now considered his most important work, The Book of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, in which he outlined 100 devices with instructions for building them.
Perhaps the most important invention in this book is his boat with mechanical musicians, sometimes called the first programmable robot in the world. Designed to entertain guests at royal drinking parties, the device consisted of a boat with four musicians driven by a clever hydraulic design.
Professor Noel Sharkey, computer scientist and chief judge at the Robot Wars of BBC 2, says TechRadar was the main invention of al-Jazari "from the perspective of robotics" and described it as "the most advanced use of hydropower to animate". figures with detailed articulation of the arm joints "at the time.
Turn on the water works
Although the use of hydraulics dates back to Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, Sharkey explains that "one of [al-Jazari’s] great innovations were the way he has driven his boat over a relatively long time ".
He explains the mechanism and says, "There was a water tank on board that was used to fill a large tipper – it took about 30 minutes, then the bucket tipped a stream of water over a waterwheel that turned an axle, both the boat as the vending machines moved musicians on board, the boat rested when the bucket was refilled and then the process repeated itself until the water tank was empty. "
So why are mechanical musicians the first programmable robot in the world? The answer lies in the two small percussionists aboard the boat. Sharkey continues: "I originally argued that the boat with musicians was a candidate for the first programmable robot or machine that claims from Mark Rosheim that Leonardo da Vinci [created] the first programmable robot / vending machine in the 15th century.
"Under the" drummer "was a spinning shaft (powered by falling water) with pins on it While these pins were turning, they pulled on a lever that lifted the drummer's stroke and then sank down The rhythm and timing of the drum beats was completely controlled by the placement of the pegs, so to refine the rhythm, all you had to do was drill holes all the way around the axis so that the pins could be moved in different positions. be placed. "
The father of robotics?
When al-Jazari left such detailed instructions, Sharkey was able to recreate the mechanism, to show how the movable pins allowed the robot to program & # 39 ;. He also added an Irish flute "just for fun".
Although Sharkey believes that al-Jazari's work was important for the development of mechanics and indirectly the development of modern robotics, he is not convinced that he & # 39; the father of robotics & # 39; should be mentioned.
"I think that title should go to a much older vending machine from ancient Alexandria called Heron," he says. "Al-Jazari followed a long tradition of automata makers from antiquity and then a strong Islamic tradition, the most notable influence was the book from the 9th century on water dispensers from the Islamic automaton manufacturer Banu Musa." Al-Jazari also had access to Arabic translations from books by the ancient Greek engineers Philo and Heron, but al-Jazari brought a new level of refinement to vending machines with large-scale and more ambitious works. "
Sharkey, also co-director of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics, has spent most of his life investigating robotics and artificial intelligence, has come to the conclusion that al-Jazari's mechanical musicians may not even be the earliest example of a programmable robot.
He describes a "mobile robot / automata theater, made by Heron of Alexandria around 60 AD", although he acknowledges that al-Jazari "clearly made a leap forward in the articulation of human figures that eventually led to the 19th century. clockworks that was continued in the early 20th century electric robots such as Willy Televox and Electro ".
Despite his contributions to modern robotics, al-Jazari may not be the domestic name he should be, perhaps because of a generally Christian-oriented and Western-oriented approach to teaching history in schools.
At the moment it is not yet clear to what extent robots will infiltrate our daily lives in the coming years, but with pre-electricity robotics, the printing press and even glasses, it is clear that humankind is fascinated by vending machines for much longer than most people can imagine.