Robot Visions

Stories Introduction: The Robot Chronicles
What is a robot? We might define it most briefly and comprehensively as "an artificial object that resembles a human being."

When we think of resemblance, we think of it, first, in terms of appearance. A robot looks like a human being.

It could, for instance, be covered with a soft material that resembles human skin. It could have hair, and eyes, and a voice, and all the features and appurtenances of a human being, so that it would, as far as outward appearance is concerned, be indistinguishable from a human being.

This, however, is not really essential. In fact, the robot, as it appears in science fiction, is almost always constructed of metal, and has only a stylized resemblance to a human being.

Suppose, then, we forget about appearance and consider only what it can do. We think of robots as capable of performing tasks more rapidly or more efficiently than human beings. But in that case any machine is a robot. A sewing machine can sew faster than a human being, a pneumatic drill can penetrate a hard surface faster than an unaided human being can, a television set can detect and organize radio waves as we cannot, and so on.

We must apply the term robot, then, to a machine that is more specialized than an ordinary device. A robot is a computerized machine that is capable of performing tasks of a kind that are too complex for any living mind other than that of a man, and of a kind that no non-computerized machine is capable of performing.

In other words to put it as briefly as possible:

robot = machine + computer

Clearly, then, a true robot was impossible before the invention of the computer in the 1940s, and was not practical (in the sense of being compact enough and cheap enough to be put to everyday use) until the invention of the microchip in the 19708.

Nevertheless, the concept of the robot-an artificial device that mimics the actions and, possibly, the appearance of a human being-is old, probably as old as the human imagination.

The ancients, lacking computers, had to think of some other way of instilling quasi-human abilities into artificial objects, and they made use of vague supernatural forces and depended on god-like abilities beyond the reach of mere men.

Thus, in the eighteenth book of Homer's Iliad, Hephaistos, the Greek god of the forge, is described as having for helpers, "a couple of maids...made of gold exactly like living girls; they have sense in their heads, they can speak and use their muscles, they can spin and weave and do their work..." Surely, these are robots.

Again, the island of Crete, at the time of its greatest power, was supposed to possess a bronze giant named Talos that ceaselessly patrolled its shores to fight off the approach of any enemy.

Throughout ancient and medieval times, learned men were supposed to have created artificially living things through the secret arts they had learned or uncovered-arts by which they made use of the powers of the divine or the demonic.

The medieval robot-story that is most familiar to us today is that of Rabbi Loew of sixteenth-century Prague. He is supposed to have formed an artificial human being-a robot-out of clay, just as God had formed Adam out of clay. A clay object, however much it might resemble a human being, is "an unformed substance" (the Hebrew word for it is "golem"), since it lacks the attributes of life. Rabbi Loew, however, gave his golem the attributes of life by making use of the sacred name of God, and set