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Idaho National Laboratory

Humanoid Robotics
Historical Perspectives
Photo: android robot

Manny: a full-scale android body completed by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in 1989 for the U.S. Army. Manny was life-sized and had 42 degrees of freedom, but no intelligence or autonomous mobility.

Humanity has long been fascinated by the possibility of automata (from the Greek "automatos," acting of itself). In the second century B.C., Hero of Alexander constructed statues, doors and small mechanical animals that could be animated by water, air and steam pressure. By the eighteenth century, elaborate mechanical dolls were able to write short phrases, play musical instruments, and perform other simple, life-like acts.1 Today, robots are no longer mere curiosities, but have become an indispensable pillar of global industry. We have millions of factory automation robots carrying out complex tasks around the clock. From clockwork, gear-filled devices, we have arrived at lethal instruments of war such as the unmanned military vehicles vividly demonstrated to the world during the 1991 liberation of Kuwait.

From the very beginning, our fascination extended beyond machine automation to the possibility of creating an entity with our own form and function. In Homer's Argosy, the bronze sentinel, Talos, was created and animated by Daedulus to guard the island of Thera. Written some time around the 3rd century A.D., the pre-Cabbalistic book of Jewish mysticism named the Sefer Yezirah (The Book of Creation) describes how numbers and letters can be arranged to correlate with the four elements of creation (Spirit of God, ether, water and fire) and provide a template for life itself. According to Jewish legend, certain great rabbis used their programming prowess to instill life in an effigy or golem, creating a human-like automaton that could carry out its master's command.2

Even in myth, humans recognized the uniqueness of their intelligence and the staggering difficulty of replicating it. The legend acknowledged that although the golem could perform simple tasks as it was ordered, it would never possess ru'ah - the breath of life bestowed on Adam in the primordial creation. This myth provides an interesting context for examining the past, present and future of Humanoid Robotics and raises some hard questions. Is human intelligence more than any encoding can capture, no matter how elegant or complex? How should we represent and impart knowledge. What is the best we can hope for?

David Bruemmer,