We live in an age filled with robots- both those that respond to commands issued by a person and those that autonomously respond to a program placed within their operating system. Regardless of how they function, and more fundamentally, robots are tools meant to perform tasks that are repetitive or dangerous, often in situations requiring high precision or to serve as human proxy. Interestingly, robots have also been a staple in fiction since antiquity- one of the earliest examples was the bronze giant, Talos, in Homer’s IIiad. They have also been used as an elaborate metaphor for humankind’s relationship with technology. So, whether the term “robot” conjures up a vision of Frankenstein or Tickle Me Elmo, they no longer are just a figment of fertile imaginations and humankind’s reliance is growing exponentially. For example, robots are increasingly playing a significant role in amateur astronomy- the image that accompanies this discussion was produced through robotic assistance.
Robot was first used by Karel Capek, a Czech play write, in his 1921 science fiction play, R.U.R.(Rossum’s Universal Robots). It was coined by his brother and comes from the Czech and Slovak words robota (a forced laborer or serf) and robotovat (to slave) which have been in use since the tenth century. In the play, Rossum’s factory manufactures mechanical slaves that have a human appearance. These mechanisms became the object of abuse by the people who encounter them until they are given emotions and join forces in revolt of their tormentors. Eventually, they conquer the world and decimate humanity but soon realize the hollowness of their victory because they cannot reproduce and perpetuate their species. As a final plot twist, the last remaining human, who is luckily a scientist, solves this problem by creating a male and female robot before he, too, expires.
The theme of robots as objects of mistrust and fear took literary root prior to Capek’s play when Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley published, what is considered to be, the first work of science fiction- Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus– in 1818. In Shelly’s story, a superhuman, intelligent and wholly artificially created creature turns against its creator and destroys him to save itself from persecution. The story’s protagonist, Frankenstein’s monster, is considered to be the first robot in literature and it created a template for hundreds of robotic characters that followed.
However, other, much more benevolent examples have appeared in fiction that takes exception to robots as being fearsome or dangerous. Consider the beloved Tin Man, who first appeared in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900. Robby the Robot became one of the most famous robots to appear in cinema when he took a prominent role in the 1957 film, Forbidden Planet, as another example. K-9 was a constant companion in the long lived Dr. Who television series on the BBC and Marvin, the depressed and paranoid robot, was given totally unexpected characteristics in Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There are many, many more.
Orion Deep field (detail of M78)
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The leading exponent of passive and practical robotics had to be Isaac Asimov, Doctor of Biochemistry, and the worlds’ most prolific author of science fiction and popular science, who passed away in 1992. Asimov’s most distinctive contribution to science fiction was the re-creation of the robot as a scientific tool rather than as a predatory monster. He depicted robots as logical engineering creations with intelligent safeguards against misuse. Conflicts arose from the interaction of robot programming, known as the Three Laws of Robotics, and unexpected situations, or human lack of understanding of their humanoid tools. Asimov began his robot stories before computers or computer programming were widely known, but he correctly anticipated many of the problems encountered by real software writers and users.
The concept of a man made creation conceived to perform in place of its creator can be traced much further back in history. For example, one of the first recorded designs of a robot, made by Leonardo da Vinci sometime near 1495, was rediscovered in Da Vinci’s notebooks during the 1950s. His detailed drawings depicted a mechanical knight that was able to sit up, articulate its arm and turn its head. Unfortunately, it is not known if Leonardo’s mechanical man was ever built but his drawings are marvelous!
Nikola Tesla is considered to have constructed one of the first robotically operated devices when he successfully demonstrated a radio-controlled boat to the public at Madison Square Garden in 1898. He envisioned remotely controlled torpedoes for the Navy using radio to connect the operator to the weapon. It was based on several patents that fell under his umbrella concept called teleautomation. He also proposed using teleautomation with remotely controlled airplanes and ground vehicles and accurately predicted that machines would possess their own intelligence sometime in the future.
We teach history to our children as a linear progression where one event leads to another following, more or less, a straight line whose path becomes obvious over time. This is also the way most adults consider the past when they grow reflective, but the history of humanity- our culture and inventions- is far, far more complicated than that. Humankind’s past is more like a water shed area, where multiple small streams trickle downward simultaneously, converge unexpectedly and form larger flows that eventually combine to create the mighty river we call history. Instead of considering history as a book’s table of contents it is actually more accurate to think of humanity’s past as the index of a book where one item has many references to others through cause and effect. History is actually an interconnected web like the Internet. For example, the innovation that propelled our increasing reliance on robots came from another uniquely remarkable invention that affects all of our lives and upon which our modern society is now based- the computer.
Orion Deep field (detail of belt stars)
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When the computer was being embraced by business and industry, back in the 1950’s, a sense of dread slowly spread among workers that their hard work, dedication, loyalty and livelihoods could be trivialized and usurped by a machine. This suspicion has not entirely vanished over time. Perhaps, it has simply become one of life’s understood economic realities along with the contemporary concept of out-sourcing. However, there was an insightful motion picture, titled Desk Set, released in 1957, that revolved around a fictitious broadcasting network that acquired computers to offset the workload anticipated by a pending merger. At that time computers were already starting to replace whole offices of clerical staff and most Americans did not know much about these devices. The movie helped prepare those that saw it for the changes that computers were about to make on society in general. Essentially a romantic comedy, the moral of the story was expressed by one of the starring characters: a computer is not a monster that will take people’s jobs away but a tool that will make their work easier and more enjoyable. Of course, this simplistic explanation overlooks the fact that the easier job may be something completely different!
Regardless, as computer technology converged with robotics research during the past few decades, the explosion of everyday robots and their utility as mechanical servants ignited.
Today, robots are prolific in the mass production of products where repeatable precision is a requirement. Auto manufacturers, for example, have increasingly relied on industrial robots to paint, weld and help assemble cars and the results have increased the reliability and quality of their goods, significantly. Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV’s) are used in warehousing to move materials following embedded wires or relying on laser-guidance for navigation within the facility. In hospitals, AGV’s shuttle medicines or patient meals to nursing stations and, once finished, it returns to its charging station and awaits the next task- all without intervention.
Robots are being welcomed into our homes as vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers and, in Japan, as companions. We also need look no further than at the toys we give our children- as mentioned at the beginning of this discussion, one of the hottest items for Christmas 2006 was Tickle Me Elmo, the latest incarnation of a highly sophisticated robotic plaything for youngsters.
Orion Deep field (detail of Horsehead and Flame Nebulae)
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Robots are also used in duties that are dull, dirty or too dangerous to risk or sustain a person’s life such as bomb disposal or in outer space exploration. Every probe sent by NASA, ESA, Russia, Japan or any other space faring nation is an essentially semi-autonomous robot of which the two seemingly invincible Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are the current poster children.
Robotics has found it’s way into amateur astronomy- hundreds of thousands of affordable, portable telescopes are now equipped with sophisticated computers capable of automatically understanding their geo-location, the time of day and date and locating objects in the heavens with a few simple button clicks from the observer. However, these devices still require the operator to be located nearby, tethered by a wire between the instrument and a handheld controller.
Over the past few years, beginning at the turn of the millennium, products and software became available that leveraged the Internet to enable long distance control of observatories and telescopes. Originally limited to professional facilities incurring enormous cost in both equipment and communications, remote, robotic telescope operation has become within the budgetary capabilities of motivated, high end astrophotographers, like Rob Gender, who created the picture that accompanies this discussion. You can see the largest version here.
Rob is arguably one of (if not) the world’s most famous and talented deep space photographers. A father of twins, Rob and his wife live in north-central Connecticut where he is also a full time physician at a Hartford area hospital. For almost ten years he produced evocative imagery from the driveway next to his suburban home, staying all night along side his telescope and camera as they slurped up the star light. About eighteen months ago, he took a huge leap in a constant quest to improve his pictures by opening a remotely controlled, robotic observatory in the south-central mountains of New Mexico.
His robot is skinned by a commercially available fiberglass structure. When it’s in operation, the observatory appears like a squat, round cyclops staring intently at the night sky above. Sight is accomplished through an 11 mega-pixel astronomical camera that’s attached to a 20-inch, f/8 Ritchey-Chretien telescope. The brains of his remote facility are provided by a suite of orchestrated applications housed in an on-sight desk-top computer which can be accessed at high-speed over the Internet from anywhere in the World. In case of some unexpected system failure or emergency, on-site assistance and security is provided by support personnel 24X7.
Each clear night, when the moon is not visible, will find Rob seated in his New England home office talking to his southwestern observatory. After receiving its targeting information, the telescope slews and locks into position as the dome’s eye opens and rotates to present an unobstructed view of the heavens. Then the camera shutter opens and the nightlong imaging session commences. Sensors relay information about temperature, humidity, cloud cover and wind speed at the station. Any of these factors can affect the nights planned imaging schedule but the robotic setup is designed to maintain a constant vigil and shut down the observatory if weather conditions degrade beyond pre-established parameters. Instead of remaining awake and personally attending to his equipment, as he did for many years in the past, Rob goes to bed and gets a good night’s sleep- his observatory runs without need for further intervention!
Orion Deep field (detail of The Great Nebula- M42)
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Rob’s setup is not unique; dozens of amateur astronomers have opened or are planning similar situations. Some are located in back yards while others are on the opposite side of the planet, thanks to the pervasiveness of the Internet. Increasingly, many astronomers, both amateur and professional, who do not have the budget to set up a personal robotic observatory, are taking advantage of installations available for rent on an hourly or nightly basis. For example, Global-rent-a-scope.com offers telescopes of various sizes that are located in the United States, Australia and Africa. In Europe, The Virtual Telescope offers a Celestron 11 and a Takahashi FS-102. The Stonehenge Observatory and my own Blackbird Observatory separately provides a 20-inch Ritchey-Chretien instrument for hourly rental.
The image featured with this discussion offers an amazing vision. That this picture was exposed using a robotic observatory makes it an even more incredible achievement. It represents over fifty hours of exposure trained on the central part of the constellation Orion. Four wide field exposures using a 4-inch astrographic refractor were seamlessly stitched to create the body of this mosaic but higher resolution images were also combined to enhance its clarity. Many in the amateur astrophotography community consider this picture to the best ever produced by a non-professional astronomer.
The scene displays a place 1,500 light years from where we live. It reaches from M78, at the lower left, to the Hunter’s right-most belt star, at the upper left corner. Left and slightly below center is the Horsehead and Flame Nebulae region. To the upper right lies the Great Nebula in Orion- the greatest star birth area near Earth. The section stretching diagonally to the lower right is filled with the swirling material of the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex that extends far beyond the confines of this enormous slice of the sky.
Written by R. Jay GaBany