Of Automata and Asimov

Mankind has always been fascinated by machines. Back during the time of ancient Greece, the ‘metal man’ Talos was gifted by Zeus to Europa. Talos was a giant automaton made of bronze, built to protect Europa at her home on the island of Crete. Circling the island’s shores three times a day, he was to provide protection from pirates and invaders.

Although Talos only existed in a story of Greek mythology, the discovery of the Antikythera mechanism in 1902 shows that the Greeks had developed complex mechanical technology as far back as 87 to 205 BC. This device, composed of at least 30 meshing bronze gears, was an analogue computer designed to function as an orrery, a machine to predict astronomical positions for astrological purposes.

Hero of Alexandria, a Greek who lived from around 10 until 70 AD, was a mathematician and engineer. Although the field of cybernetics was not formalised until the twentieth century, his work on automated devices is considered to represent the first formal research into this area.

is work ‘Automata’ describes machines that enable wonders in temples, such as automatic doors and statues that pour wine. Such functions were made possible as a result of his studies into the harnessing of steam pressure, wind and water.

A further source of historical mechanical innovation come from the works of Da Vinci. Many have attempted to recreate his machines from his drawings. Some items are complete solutions, such as a flying machine or machines of war. Others are simply mechanisms for pulleys, or systems that create oscillating motion.

He also designed and possibly built a mechanical knight, an automaton that was clad in medieval armour. The design notes, rediscovered in the 1950s, indicate that it was operated by a series of pulleys and cables, and was capable of standing up, sitting down and moving its arms.

Perhaps one of the most impactful implementations of automation was during the twentieth century at the Ford Motor Company. Impressed by the use of conveyor belts common in many grain warehouses in the Midwest, Henry Ford worked with Frederick Taylor to implement the same concepts at the factory manufacturing the Ford Model T. His goal was to introduce efficiencies to the manufacturing process that would help to bring the price down, making the motor vehicle more accessible to the public.

Using a chain conveyor, the vehicle chassis was pulled along the 150-foot long line while 140 workers applied their assigned parts to the vehicle. With further workers employed to ensure that everyone had a stock of parts to hand, the assembly time per vehicle was significantly decreased. Overall, the assembly line technique, and automation technology employed, reduced the production time for a single vehicle from more than 12 hours to just over 90 minutes.

In 1914, Ford produced more motor vehicles than all the other automobile manufacturers combined.

As more and more machines came into use, the reality of robots working with and assisting humans became more tangible. Science fiction, fired up by continued advances in technology, liked to consider how this human-machine partnership may play out.

Isaac Asimov, an American writer and professor of biochemistry, noted that one of the stock plots of science fiction was that robots were created and subsequently destroyed by their creator. This led to his creation of The Three Laws, a set of rules devised to ensure that robots do not injure human beings, obey orders and protect their own existence.

To date, it is up to the programmers of robots to ensure such rules are followed. However, with autonomous, artificial intelligence driven robots and vehicles now within grasp, groups now exist that seriously examine the ethical, legal and socio-economic issues surrounding such machines.

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