Robot, any automatically operated machine that replaces human effort, though it may not resemble human beings in appearance or perform functions in a humanlike manner. By extension, robotics is the engineering discipline dealing with the design, construction, and operation of robots.

The concept of artificial humans predates recorded history (see automaton), but the modern term robot derives from the Czech word robota (“forced labour” or “serf”), used in Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (1920). The play’s robots were manufactured humans, heartlessly exploited by factory owners until they revolted and ultimately destroyed humanity. Whether they were biological, like the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), or mechanical was not specified, but the mechanical alternative inspired generations of inventors to build electrical humanoids.

The word robotics first appeared in Isaac Asimov’s science-fiction story Runaround (1942). Along with Asimov’s later robot stories, it set a new standard of plausibility about the likely difficulty of developing intelligent robots and the technical and social problems that might result. Runaround also contained Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics:

1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
This article traces the development of robots and robotics. For further information on industrial applications, see the article automation.

The Future
Numerous companies are working on consumer robots that can navigate their surroundings, recognize common objects, and perform simple chores without expert custom installation. Perhaps about the year 2020 the process will have produced the first broadly competent “universal robots” with lizardlike minds that can be programmed for almost any routine chore. With anticipated increases in computing power, by 2030 second-generation robots with trainable mouselike minds may become possible. Besides application programs, these robots may host a suite of software “conditioning modules” that generate positive- and negative-reinforcement signals in predefined circumstances.

By 2040 computing power should make third-generation robots with monkeylike minds possible. Such robots would learn from mental rehearsals in simulations that would model physical, cultural, and psychological factors. Physical properties would include shape, weight, strength, texture, and appearance of things and knowledge of how to handle them. Cultural aspects would include a thing’s name, value, proper location, and purpose. Psychological factors, applied to humans and other robots, would include goals, beliefs, feelings, and preferences. The simulation would track external events and would tune its models to keep them faithful to reality. This should let a robot learn by imitation and afford it a kind of consciousness. By the middle of the 21st century, fourth-generation robots may exist with humanlike mental power able to abstract and generalize. Researchers hope that such machines will result from melding powerful reasoning programs to third-generation machines. Properly educated, fourth-generation robots are likely to become intellectually formidable.