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A brief history of robots

A brief history of robots

Robots can be considered similar to children, in the sense that they learn from their mistakes, like toddlers do, including after they fall over. While we want robots to make our lives easier, we cannot quite bring ourselves to trust them, yet. In fact, nowadays the general concern is that robots might soon be stealing our jobs in the future. However, the truth is that we may be more likely to find ourselves working alongside a robot than have one replace us. Better still, you are probably more likely to make friends with a robot than have one threaten your life!

In the beginning…

The word “robot” comes from the Slavic word “rabota” which means “work” or “labour”.  This word first appeared in Czech playwright K. Capek's play R.U.R. ‘Rossum's Universal Robots’ in 1920. In this play, robots looked like humans and were far more efficient in what they did than their human counterparts. However, in this play, these robots do actually eradicate humankind...

This scenario potentially contributed to the mistrust of machines like the Terminator and Matrix movie series that we know today, and unfortunately, this trend still continues. However, there are friendlier versions of robots too, like in the movie “Bicentennial Man”.


When we think about robots, we think about an intelligent machine that can do things without supervision and on its own, for example a plane or drone that you can pilot via remote control. We all agree that this does not constitute a robot. But if you develop the drone to take off and land on its own and sense objects and fly around them autonomously, this is closer to how a robot should be.

It wasn’t until 1960 that the first robot appeared that was perceptive and mobile. Aptly named “Shakey”, it was slow and twitchy. But it could navigate a complex environment on its own, though not very confidently. 

Around the same decade, manufacturing started to be transformed through the use of robots. The most obvious example was car factories, where they would perform tedious and dangerous assemblies far more precisely than a human could ever muster. These fit the definition of a robot even though they are stuck in place, since they sense and manipulate their environment intelligently and are still in use today.

Shakey (1960)
Sophia (2016)

From “Shakey” 1960 (top) to “Sophia” 2016 (bottom)


Honda started a humanoid robotics program in the mid-1980s - the P-series – and P3 was unveiled in 1997, which was a robot that could walk very well and also wave and shake hands. This progressive development would ultimately culminate into ASIMO, arguably the most famous biped to date, which is currently displayed in Miraikan museum in the Japanese capital city of Tokyo. Honda announced that it was stopping development of the ASIMO project in June 2018 and now plans to put the technology behind Asimo to use in areas such as physical therapy and self-driving vehicles.

What next…?

Increasingly sophisticated machines may already be with us, but for robots to be really useful, they will have to become more and more self-sufficient. It is impossible to program a home robot to grip each and every object it might ever encounter. This is where artificial intelligence (AI) comes in.

In the future, self-driving cars will be reliable and sophisticated enough to be trusted by humans to be driven reliably. AI is inside the car that can never be tired or be drunk.

Humanoid robots will also interact more and more with humans, to the point where they will eventually be unrecognisable to us. Hansen Robotics have already built a robot in 2016 resembling a human being called “Sophia”. She appeared on covers of magazines, appeared on television programs. She is a robot that can speak autonomously about various subjects since she is permanently connected to the internet, from which she can browse and search for different subjects at will. She can sense the speaker’s mood from facial expressions and she can in turn make more than 50 different facial expressions herself. Eventually, the aim of Hansen Robotics is for Sophia to look and act amazingly human through continued machine learning. Whilst there has been mixed reception from the scientific community about Sophia’s capacity for consciousness, there is no doubting the advantages of her service robotic applications which would be in business, medical/healthcare and education.

At the end of K. Capek's play, ‘Rossum's Universal Robots’, almost all humans have been killed apart form one, Alquist, whom the robots have chosen to spare because they recognise that "he works with his hands like the Robots”. Two robots, Primus and Helena, develop human feelings and fall in love. Alquist realises that they are the new Adam and Eve, and gives charge of the world to them. As we near the centenary since this play was first performed, the question of robots developing into a master race of consciousness and high intelligence is one that won’t go away.


Vincent Farrugia is a network and systems manager at Deloitte Malta. For more information please visit