Intelligence is not Artificial

by piero scaruffi

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(These are excerpts from my book "Intelligence is not Artificial")

Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (The Birth of Robots)

The word "robot" first appeared in Karel Capek's science-fiction theatrical play "R.U.R" (which stands for Rossum's Universal Robots) of 1920, but it referred to artificial humans built in a factory (like the replicants in "Blade Runner"), and "robota" means "serf labor" because these "robots" are used as slaves in the plot. So these robots were really the descendants of Mary Shelley's creature in "Frankenstein" (1818), or of Carlo Collodi`s wooden boy in "The Adventures of Pinocchio" (1883) and Frank Baum's tin-man in "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" (1900). Today's robots are rather the descendants of the mechanical automata that were built over the centuries in Europe, Middle East and China, the most famous being Jacques de Vaucanson's "Flute Player" (1737) and Pierre Jaquet-Droz's "The Writer" (1768). The protagonist of Jacques Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann" (1881) falls in love with Olympia, a mechanical doll. The first fictional robot could well be Thea von Harbou's Futura in "Metropolis" (1925), the novel on which Fritz Lang's film was based. It was, however, preceded in cinema by Burton King's and Harry Grossman's Automaton in the serial "The Master Mystery" (1920), coincidentally shown in the same year as Capek wrote his play, and by Andre' Deed's movie "L'Uomo Meccanico/ The Mechanical Man" (1921).

Engineers were slow at catching up with novelists and filmmakers. The first actual machine called "robot" and displayed to a public was Eric Robot, built by William Richards for London's Exhibition of the Society of Model Engineers (1928), with the characters "RUR" emblazoned on its chest, but it was operated by two men. Westinghouse introduced some of the early machines that were marketed as a mechanical man or woman (rarely as a "robot"). Roy Wensley at the Pittsburgh laboratories built Herbert Televox (1928), capable of lifting the telephone receiver, reacting to three sounds and activating appliances accordingly, soon followed by the similar Katrina Van Televox (1930). After Wensley quit, Joseph Barnett at the Ohio laboratories built Willie Vocalite (1932), capable of responding to vocal signals as well as to light signals through photoelectric cells and of turning on and off any appliance to which it was connected. Westinghouse's publicity claimed that it could answer the phone, vacuum the floor and make coffee, all wild exaggerations. These artifacts (largely useless) were not sold but were simply toured around the USA to promote Westinghouse's appliances. Joseph Barnett's Elektro the Moto-Man was a sensation at the New York World's Fair of 1939: it "walked" across the stage and "replied" when asked to tell the story of its creation. In reality it had rollers on its feet, it responded to light impulses (no matter which words were uttered while flashing the light), and it only spoke the speeches recorded on eight 78-rpm records, each played by a different turntable; but it could smoke cigarettes and blow up balloons, enough to entertain the children. Also famous was Roll-oh, a robot shown by General Motors in a short film at New York World's Fair of 1940, but in reality just a stunt to publicize Chevrolet's "high-tech" cars.

In 1954 George Devol designed the first industrial robotic arm, Unimate, which, manufactured by Joseph Engelberger, was first delivered to a General Motors factory in New Jersey in 1959. Joseph Engelberger, a fan of Isaac Asimov, marketed George Devol's invention as a "robot", although the dull repetitive Unimate arm was hardly the intelligent and mobile robot that Asimov, Capek and Hollywood had in mind. This would create endless confusion in Artificial Intelligence about what constitutes a robot.

Unimate soon had a competitor: in 1962 the American Machine and Foundry (AMF) introduced a programmable robotic arm called Versatile Transfer Machine, or VersaTran, designed by Harry Johnson and Veljko Milenkovic (which also appears in Douglas Trumbull's 1972 movie "Silent Running").

In 1961 Claude Shannon's student Heinrich Ernst at MIT built a computer-controlled hand (capable of finding object by touch, grasping them and putting them into a box), the MH-1, controlled via the MIT's TX-0 computer, one of the first fully transistorized computers. And computer vision was inaugurated in 1963 at MIT by the dissertation of Lawrence Roberts ("Machine Perception of Three-Dimensional Solids").

The first major improvement over William Grey-Walter's Elmer and Elsie of 1949 was the wheeled robots developed at Johns Hopkins University by Leonard Scheer and John Chubbuck: first Mod I in 1961 (nicknamed "Ferdinand") and then Mod II three years later (nicknamed "Beast"). They were programmed to survive in their environment by finding electrical outlets: Mod I by touch only and Mod II also via a video system. They were equipped with sonars to avoid obstacles.

Bernard Roth, who had studied kinematics (the mathematical theory of rigid body motions) at Columbia University, was one of John McCarthy's early coworkers at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1963 and decided to acquire the robotic arm with seven degrees of freedom developed at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in southern California to help disabled patients (and that, contrary to many reports, was not controlled by a computer). Roth's students would include Donald Pieper (whose seminal thesis was "The Kinematics of Manipulators under Computer Control", 1968), Victor Scheinman, Brian Carlisle, Bruce Shimano, Kenneth Salisbury, and Lou Paul (who would write the seminal book "Robot Manipulators", 1981). Trivia: in 1971 the same Bernie Roth created the "Designer in Society" class at Stanford that launched "design thinking".

The robot Shakey, a project started in 1969 at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) by Charles Rosen's team, represented the vanguard of autonomous vehicles. The robot's reasoning was done in Cordell Green's logic system QA3, written in LISP. By 1971 Shakey made the leap to a more powerful machine (a PDP-10) and the team had made some valuable contributions to the field: the STRIPS planner, developed by Richard Fikes and Nils Nilsson, the Hough transform for computer vision, developed by Richard Duda and Peter Hart, and the A* heuristic search algorithm (that would remain the most used algorithm in its class for half a century).

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