A brief history of robotics (and what we can learn for the future workplace)
When you hear the word ‘robot’, what do you think of? A set of mechanical arms? The ability to obey commands? The simplification of a process? Now, we’re living in a time when robots (both in the physical and digital sense) are disrupting how we do business.
For this blog, I thought I would look at the history of robots. The term was coined by the brother of Czechoslovakian author Karel Čapek, and used in the play Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Debuting in 1921, this was before science fiction was even known as science fiction – and it would go on to inspire a whole new branch of science and engineering themed productions.
Here are a few key moments in robotics history, which have brought us to where we are today:
- 1942 – US author Isaac Asimov has his Three Laws for Robotics codified in science fiction short story Runaround.
- 1949 – William Grey Walter built what are thought to be the first electronic autonomous robots called machina speculatrix. Fun fact: these turtle-like machines were called Elsie and Elmer.
- 1950 – Alan Turing devises the Turing test, which tried to see if a machine could show intelligent behavior indistinguishable from a human.
- 1969 – Robotics technology is used when NASA land Neil Armstrong on the moon.
- 1977 – Robots enter mainstream consciousness with the characters C-3PO and R2D2 in Star Wars.
- 2000 – ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility) is released by Honda – the humanoid machine can understand voice commands; interact with its surroundings (and even kick footballs).
A digital machine for the modern day
A huge area of interest for me now is the application of robotic technology within the world of software (also known as bots).
The idea of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is not a new one; its first practical application was in ATMs. The world’s first cash machine was installed in Enfield, North London in 1967.
In the same way, you can use robots to do the heavy lifting on a production line; they can do this also within your business processes. RPA technologies are now coming to the fore, creating a new breed of “cognitive enterprise”. They are leaner, more efficient, and are much more capable of addressing the needs of the customer.
When you combine RPA with the likes of natural language processing, speech recognition, and machine learning, it means tasks normally completed by a person can instead be automated by machine.
But it’s not about taking humans out of the equation – in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
The cognitive enterprise allows for the creation of an integrated workforce, where bots work alongside humans. While the software machine picks up simple activities it allows humans to focus on more complex, strategic, or higher value interactions.
Customer service chatbots and automated invoicing is only the start. As computing processing power increases (along with the complexity of the algorithms the bots are made of) the line between human and machine capability is only going to shift further.
I firmly believe that the growth in the use of RPA will fuel the rate at which cognitive automation takes hold. We will soon see the next evolution as we expand robotics activity towards even more complementary cognitive technologies.
We’ve come along way since William Grey Walter built his machina speculatrix, but with integrated workforces set to grow, you may have a few more bots in your team very soon.