Robots have been around for a while, but the first ones that could be called intelligent in any way were by W. Grey Walter, in 1949. A lot has happened over the last 63 years, but Walter’s robot tortoises are still very impressive:

Watching these videos, one can imagine the potential; despite their obviously mechanical exterior, the appear very alive, even in comparison to today’s most advanced robots. The tortoises contain no software or any form of digital circuitry, but are able to steer themselves towards a light source. In this way, the robots are aware of their environment and able to act on this awareness, making them both situated and embodied, the two key ingredients for an intelligent robot.

W. Grey Walter and his family. From Pierre de Latil La Pensée Artificielle (Gallimard 1953)

By connecting his sensors directly to the motors, Walter gave up some level of predictability in favor of performance. Or, put differently, he created a more autonomous and independent machine. This thread of development did not become the mainstream approach for robot builders. BEAM Robotics, a style of robotics which focuses on the sole use of analog circuitry, still yields new variants of the tortoises (amongst other cool robots), but nothing much more complex than that. On the other side of the spectrum we find robots like Asimo and PR2, which favor predictability over performance. Somewhere in the middle we find the more hopeful examples, such as Domo, Big Dog and Pleo.


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