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Counting down the 10 most important robots in history


From research labs to factories, farms, and even our own homes, robots are everywhere these days. But which are the most important robots ever built? We decided to welcome our new robot overlords with just such a list. Read on to discover which robots we owe a debt of a gratitude for their part in turning science fiction into, well, science.

William Grey Walter’s “Tortoises”

First developed in 1949 by William Grey Walter, an American-born neuroscientist living in England, these “tortoises” boasted a light sensor, marker light, touch sensor, propulsion motor, steering motor, and protective shell. Today, they are considered early examples of robots able to autonomously explore their own environments.

They even had some smart capabilities like the ability to steer toward a light source when running low on power. This led to intriguing behavior when they “saw” their light own light reflected in a mirror. Walter claimed that this, “might be accepted as evidence of some degree of self-awareness.”


Electronic robot 'Unimate' works in a building in Connecticut, United States. HD Stock Footage

The world’s first industrial robot, Unimate was employed on the General Motors assembly line from 1961. Its job was to transport die castings from the assembly line, so that they could be welded onto car bodies.

It was the first illustration of a modern robot being used to carry out jobs that would previously have been the domain of humans: a topic which is hotly debated (and increasingly prevalent) today.


Shakey: Experiments in Robot Planning and Learning (1972)

An impressive step forward in computer vision, natural language processing, problem solving, and, of course, robotics, Shakey was a much-hyped 1960s robot developed at the Artificial Intelligence Center of Stanford Research Institute.

What made Shakey particularly impressive was its ability to analyze commands and break these down into separate components in a way that brought together logical reasoning and physical action. It was described, admittedly somewhat prematurely, as the world’s “first electronic person” by Life magazine.

Freddy II

Freddy II

Developed during the 1960s and 70s at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh, Freddy II was a robot arm with adaptive grippers, a camera, and some smart image recognition technology. Moving over a table like an arcade claw crane, Freddy was able to construct a model boat and car out of wooden blocks.

The process took 16 hours to complete, but it serves as an early example of fine grain, dexterous movement by a robot.


Genghis' First Steps

What’s one way of making people unafraid of the forthcoming robot revolution? Give your latest robotic creation the same name as one of history’s most terrifying and genocidal warlords, of course.

That’s what MIT did in 1989 when it debuted its Genghis hexapodal robot. Consisting of 4 microprocessors, 22 sensors, and 12 servo motors, Genghis’ walking action was revolutionary for its time.

NASA Mars Pathfinder and Sojourner

Mars Pathfinder - 20th Anniversary Special

Robots in space is pretty much the sci-fi fantasy of every kid, and it’s something NASA realized in style with 1997’s Pathfinder mission to Mars.

Once landed on the Red Planet, Pathfinder deployed the smaller Sojourner rover, which explored the Martian terrain for a period of 83 days — sending back plenty of images, and taking various chemical, atmospheric and assorted other measurements in the process.


ASIMO on LIVE with Kelly and Michael

A bit like AI in the early 2000s, robots around the turn of the century still very much existed in research labs away from the general public. ASIMO wasn’t available for people to buy, but it did get plenty of mainstream publicity.

Short for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility (as well as sounding a bit like Isaac Asimov), ASIMO was a 4.3 foot humanoid robot, developed by Honda, and capable of some pretty impressive walking capabilities.


Furby Commercial 1998

Okay, we know: Furby isn’t particularly advanced by the standards of some of the robots on this list. What is was, however, is the first domestic robot to achieve stratospheric sales worldwide. The “must have” toy of the 1998 holiday season, Furby was an electronic owl-like creature which supposedly learned English as you spoke to it. (The NSA actually worried that it was a threat to national security.)

In reality, its abilities were a lot more limited than they appeared, but Furby remains one of the few robots in history that large numbers of people actually formed an emotional bond with.

Roomba vacuum cleaner

iRobot Roomba® 600 Series Overview | English (GB)

Like Furby, iRobot Corp’s Roomba vacuum cleaner robot is an example of a top-selling domestic robot that folks willingly welcomes into their homes in large numbers. Since launching in 2002, upwards of 14 million of the puck-shaped Roomba vacuums have been sold to date.

Not bad for a machine whose claim to fame is sucking up our grime!

BigDog and Spot

Introducing Spot Classic (previously Spot)

A dynamically stable four-legged robot created in 2005 by Boston Dynamics and partners, BigDog was a DARPA-sponsored creation capable of efficiently moving across a wide range of different terrains at high speed.

The most recent robot on this list, the project was sadly shelved after being deemed too loud for real combat. It has now been replaced by its smaller sibling, Spot.

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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