They’re exploring the deep sea and distant planets. They’re saving lives in the operating room and on the battlefield. They’re transforming factory floors and filmmaking. They’re – oh c’mon, they’re just plain cool! From Qrio to the Terminator, here are our absolute favorites (at least for now). Great photos.
Not all NASA robots drive around poking at rocks. This android will one day work alongside people on space stations. Robonaut is the same size and shape as a person in a space suit, so it can handle tasks typically performed by humans – its hands are even better articulated than an astronaut’s gloved digits. The fact that it looks like Boba Fett? Lucky coincidence.
Awww, isn’t it cuddly? Or maybe just creepy. MIT’s Cynthia Breazeal is famous for building robots that humans have an emotional reaction to. Her newest creation, Leonardo, was bolted together in 2002 with the help of the movie monster gurus at Stan Winston Studio (their animatronics include the Terminator, the aliens in Aliens, and the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park). Leonardo can grab objects, make facial expressions and complex gestures, and even learn simple tasks (like turning lights on and off) through trial and error.
The smooth-talking, self-driving muscle car from the early ’80s TV drama Knight Rider was so cool, it even upstaged David Hasselhoff. The success of this Trans-Am helped to usher in a new genre of show with supervehicles as heroes, from Airwolf to Stealth.
Some tasks are too important to be left to humans. Just ask Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The 1968 film gave the world the ultimate all seeing, all knowing – and apparently all ego – AI villain. It set the standard for machines that can think (and kill) like us but are too powerful to control.
This wasn’t the first robosucker, just the first that didn’t blow. In 2005, iRobot’s second-generation robotic vacuum showed that domestic bots can actually work. To clean the floors, simply turn the thing on – just try not to stand around watching slack-jawed.
In the mid-’80s, the PC was killing the market for videogame consoles. The game industry’s only hope? A robot. Nintendo packaged the Robotic Operating Buddy with the 1985 Nintendo Entertainment System. The R.O.B. didn’t do much, but the gimmick helped Nintendo sneak systems onto shelves. Lo, the console market was saved.
Meet a real-life hunter bot. Built in 2001 at the University of West England, SlugBot uses a vision sensor and an extending arm to find slugs, grab them, and drop them into an onboard trap. The idea is that one day it will deposit the slugs in its dock and use the gas from the decomposing bodies to charge its fuel cells.
Tom Selleck got top billing, but the real stars of Michael Crichton’s overlooked 1984 thriller were the spider attack drones. OK, their weapons were low tech (they sprayed acid at people), but the bug bots presaged Genghis (see #14) and similar critters in The Matrix and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report.
Before there were real robots, there were toy robots. Among the first was Lilliput, a windup walker from the 1930s. It couldn’t do much – the legs would walk, causing the arms to swing. But by the late ’40s, the tin tykes had spread from Japan to the US, earning a spot in toy history alongside teddy bears and fire trucks.
What would you get if Robby the Robot got busy with a Mars rover? Probably something like the Mobots. In 1960 Hughes Aircraft unleashed these industrial machines for use in hazardous material sites – teleoperators controlled the snaking appendages. Alas, like the Spruce Goose, they weren’t financially viable.
Westinghouse engineer Joseph Barnett made a splash at the 1939 World’s Fair with a 7-foot, cable-controlled metal man that could walk, speak 77 words, and even smoke cigarettes (so debonair). The next year Barnett gave the hulking android a best friend: a robotic dog that seemed to bark and sit in response to Elektro’s commands.
An ongoing project of the EU’s Future and Emerging Technologies program, these minibuggies show strength in numbers. Each s-Bot is fully independent, but get a bunch in a room together and they’ll form a chain to carry heavy payloads or bridge obstacles. Kinda like ants on roller skates … in a conga line.
Think this is a hunk of plastic that won’t fetch a tennis ball? Think again. It’s actually an advanced piece of robotics that won’t fetch a tennis ball. Introduced in 1999, AIBO is one of the most sophisticated toys on the market. It can find its docking station, recognize its owner’s face, and respond to voice commands.
It hit store shelves in 1985, and this first-ever mass-produced home robot kit is still sold today. RB5X can be programmed to speak, navigate a room, and perform such simple tasks as retrieving small objects. Of course, its real claim to fame was as a sweet prize on the ’80s videogame quiz show Starcade.
From the creators of the Roomba comes a kick-ass droid for the US military. Carried on a soldier’s back, it can be tossed into a building or under a car, where it will assess the situation (or maybe just be blown up). First deployed in Afghanistan in 2002, it’s now on active cannon-fodder duty in Iraq.
This 100-foot-tall combat machine from the 1999 movie wields an energy cannon and snacks on cars. But he really gets in gear playing hide-and-seek with a schoolboy. The giant eventually achieves robot enlightenment, realizing that he controls his own destiny (even if that means head-butting a suborbital nuclear weapon). It’s a classic example of how robots – like all technologies – are neither good nor evil, just tools of circumstance.
Robots are cool. Robots that turn into giant trucks – way cool. Robots that turn into giant trucks and command a fleet of autobots – now that could change pop culture history. Such was the impact of the Transformer when the toy line was introduced in 1984, spawning decades of TV shows, movies, and comic books.
33. THE TURK
Step right up and marvel at the mechanical device that can beat you in chess. Not impressed? You would be if it were 1769. The contraption was a hoax (inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen stashed a human chess master inside), but it sparked early debates over what it means for a machine to think.
Mars may belong to the rovers, but the oceans belong to the Autonomous Benthic Explorer. Completed in 1995 by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the first fully independent underwater scout can dive down to 15,000 feet, map thermo layers and collect water samples, then swim home on its own.
After bonding over their mutual love of sci-fi, engineers George Devol and Joseph Engelberger invented the industrial robot. They must have been reading very utilitarian fiction – their 1961 creation was a 4,000-pound arm that stacked sheets of hot metal. But it transformed the assembly line; a variant is still in use today.
While technically a cyborg, the heartless lumberjack of Oz did wrestle with a common existential dilemma faced by robots: the desire to feel. (Well, that and the desire to combat rust.) Not bad for 1939. And hey, how many other robots sing and dance with Judy Garland?
Back in 1739, Jacques de Vaucanson wanted to create artificial life. He settled for a mechanical duck that pooped. The machine used a weight system to quack, flap its wings, drink water, and eat grain, which it would digest mechanically and expel through an opening in its backside.
Apparently robots of the future like to hit the gym. Out of a long line of assassin bots, the Terminator is the perfect blend of indestructibility and determination. With him, James Cameron personified what we really fear about robots: They’d do better without us.
Forget fantasy robots that kill people – here’s a real robot that kills people. The US military’s famed unmanned aerial vehicle became a household name in 2002 after taking flight in Afghanistan. Now armed with hellfire missiles, it no longer just monitors enemies – it blows them up, too.
The classic sexbot from Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis was one of the first mechanized humans on film. She danced topless, incited riots, and sparked duels, but what really got her off was overthrowing the ruling class. No wonder she inspired every vision of an android for the next 80 years.
Some robots build cars, some explore space, some do the cha-cha-cha. In 2005, Tohoku University’s Kazuhiro Kosuge debuted a series of ballroom dancing androids, complete with fancy dresses. They can predict the movements of a partner, enabling them to follow another dancer’s lead. And they’re klutz-proof: There are no toes to step on.
Neuroscientist W. Grey Walter’s mechanical tortoises from the 1940s were the first fully autonomous electric robots. Programmed to seek out light and to turn if they ran into an object, they could find their illuminated charging stations, even if something was in the way.
In the 1951 flick The Day the Earth Stood Still, spaceman Klaatu and his robot Gort come to Earth to promote peace. When that doesn’t work out, Gort teaches us what happens to those who eschew harmony – they die. Oh the irony that a machine must remind us of our humanity.
Czech author Karel Capek coined the term robot in his 1920 play about automaton factory workers. One problem: The characters that gave a title to all robotics weren’t actually, you know, robots. They were biological creatures – more Jango Fett clones than C-3PO.
Legs, wheels, and treads – those are for bots that can’t get off the ground. NASA’s Personal Satellite Assistant possesses none of these things; instead it uses small fans to propel itself through zero gravity. Perhaps as soon as 2007, these assistants will hover over an astronaut’s shoulder, serving as an all-in-one PDA, videophone, and air monitor.
Since 1998, Mindstorms have been turning 8-year-olds into fledgling roboticists. The Lego kits come with programmable blocks that animate all manner of dinosaurs, vending machines, unmanned planes – whatever kids, or more likely their parents, can dream up.
R2-D2 and C-3PO – the Abbott and Costello of space – may be the most popular robots in history, but it’s the littler one that really steals the show. Sure, C-3PO could walk and speak 6 million languages, but R2-D2 proved that robots can be emotive without being humanoid and don’t need to speak English to communicate.
Asimo? A pipsqueak. Before Honda’s much-hyped biped was touring the world, there was P2, a 6-foot, 462-pound prototype. Unveiled in 1996, P2 possessed most of Asimo’s walking skills – including the ability to climb stairs – making it, as Honda puts it "the first self-regulating, two-legged humanoid walking robot."
Here’s an idea: Stick an elastomer foam Einstein head on a robot spaceman. This 2005 collaboration between roboticist David Hanson and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology is more likely to give you nightmares than a unified field theory. But it’s the best combo to date of bipedal movement and realistic facial expression.
Not only does Robart III have a gun, it has a team of spider "slave" bots. Under development by the Navy since 1992, this security robot uses microwave motion detectors to search, say, a hostile building for enemies, sending out its insectoid companions to look in dark corners. Alas, its barrels hold only rubber bullets and darts.
In the ’70s, some roboticists were building machines to make Chevettes, but researchers at Tokyo’s Waseda University were building bots in man’s image. In 1973, they introduced Wabot, the first full-scale programmable android. It had eyes, flailing limbs, and the ability to speak Japanese. The next rev, Wabot 2, played piano.
Creeped out by bug bots? How about bug bots that can learn? In 1988, Rodney Brooks’ lab at MIT created this six-legged walker, which taught itself how to scramble over boards and other obstacles. The secret: Allow each leg to react to the environment independently and you won’t need to program every complex step.
Part man, part machine, all Scottish: Campbell Aird received the first complete bionic arm in 1998. Pressure sensors in the shoulder attachment detect minute fluctuations in Aird’s muscles, activating motors that control the arm’s movement. Eat your heart out, Lee Majors.
What’s better than an 11-foot-tall robot? An 11-foot-tall robot that can rip cars in half and lift 1,100-pound slabs of concrete. Japanese manufacturer Tmsuk unleashed Enryu in 2004 to help in rescue operations (think earthquakes). The best part: It’s piloted from a cockpit in its belly, manga style.
Before Sonny (shown) made Asmiov’s three laws of robotics known to the masses, there was Speedy, the robot in the 1942 short story Runaround that inaugurated the directives. Speedy knows not to harm humans, to obey their commands, and to protect itself, just not which rules matter most. Turns out a bot’s needs come last.
Grand Challenge finishers, UAVs, and even KITT from Knight Rider all owe a debt of gratitude to James Adams and Hans Moravec’s Stanford Cart. In 1979, the wagon traversed a chair-filled room on its own, a landmark achievement for self-navigating vehicles. Travel time: roughly five hours.
After eight volcano researchers were killed in two 1993 eruptions, robots were brought in to take the heat. The next year, Carnegie Mellon’s Dante II was lowered into Alaska’s steaming Mount Spurr to collect data. It fell in, but not before uploading its readings, making it the first "successful" terrestrial explorer robot.
In the future, you’ll beg to be operated on by a machine. Credit Intuitive Surgical’s 2000 robot, a fusion of arms, cameras, and instruments that allows doctors to slice into patients remotely. Procedures done with the da Vinci are more precise than when humans wield the scalpel – research shows there’s less blood loss and quicker recovery.
Way back in 1495, Leonardo da Vinci designed what was probably the first robot – an automated suit of armor with a windup crank. It could sit up, wave its hands, and maybe even talk. Five hundred years later, engineer Mark Rosheim used the master’s schematics to build a working miniaturized version.
Bipedal robots that can walk up stairs seem flatfooted compared with the running, jumping, and traditional-Japanese-fan-dancing Qrio. Officially, Sony uses its state-of-the-art androids, debuted in 2003, as corporate ambassadors. But the company may one day sell them for entertainment. Works for Beck: The singer recently used all six Qrios in his video for "Hell Yes."
Developed by Stanford Research Institute International, Shakey had jerky, often nonsensical movements. But that didn’t stop the 1972 robot from entering the history books as the first machine to autonomously locate objects, steer around them – and then explain its logic for doing so.
Few robots can trace their origins to Shakespeare. Robby, from the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, was inspired by Ariel in The Tempest. But that didn’t keep Robby from leaving a legacy all his own. For decades, the very idea of a robot was synonymous with Robby’s bulbous figure.
Some robots sit in labs for researchers to tinker with. These two bots are on frickin’ Mars. Expected to last only three months when they touched down on the Red Planet in January 2004, the rovers are still going strong two years later – each sends back 100 megabits of data a day.
While American kids were daydreaming of Superman, Japanese tykes were worshipping at the altar of Tetsuwan Atom, aka Astroboy. First drawn in 1951, Astroboy has rocket boots, lasers that shoot from his fingertips, and, uh, an ass cannon. The lovable crime-fighting robot was an inspiration to a generation of kids -some of whom went on to become robotics researchers. He’s a big reason why Japan is at the forefront of android development today. Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.
The Stanford Racing Team’s autonomous vehicle is a modified Volkswagen Touareg that can scan any terrain and pick out a drivable course to a preset destination. Cup holders optional.