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In late April 2006, students from all around the world gathered at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia, for a competition very different from the athletic contests that the stadium usually hosts. This was a contest not about strength, speed, or stamina, but about smarts: the FIRST Robotics Competition.

The FIRST Robotics Competition was created by inventor Dean Kamen 16 years ago. Kamen is the creator of the Segway Human Transporter and numerous medical and scientific inventions. His goal in organizing the competition was “to inspire an appreciation of science and technology in young people, their schools and communities,” as quoted in FIRST promotional materials. When it began in 1992, 28 teams meeting in a local New Hampshire school gym participated. The 2006 contest attracted some 23,000 students in 1,125 teams to 33 regional events, leading to the championship event in Georgia.

While one of the better known, the FIRST Robotics Competition is only one of many such competitions in the United States and around the world that are sponsored by private industry, the military, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). They are all designed to spur interest in the field of robotics.

Why the emphasis on robots over other areas of technology? Because, while robotics has its roots in science fiction, popular science, and the fevered imaginations of futurists, the last three decades of the twentieth century have seen the “mechanical man” graduate from a flight of fancy in comic books, dime-store paperbacks, and B-films to a practical, hardworking tool of everyday life.

A robot is a mechanical device that can perform – either under human guidance or through the direction of a predefined program or set of guidelines – specific physical tasks. This is accomplished through the science of robotics, which combines software, mechanical manipulators, sensors, controllers, and computers to allow for programmable automation of tasks.

The idea of robots dates back as far as c. 2500 BC in Egypt and has continued to fascinate mankind ever since. Egyptian priests invented the concept of a “thinking machine” when they placed men inside statues that served as oracles – mouthpieces for the wisdom of the gods. Though this was a bit of fakery, it nevertheless spawned the idea of inanimate objects being provided with the powers of speech and intelligence. Their first appearance in literature seems to have been in Homer's eighth-century BC epic poem The Iliad. It mentions an automaton – a mechanical device, usually powered by water, wind, or clockworks – and a simulacra, or a device created in the image of a living thing. The first practical application of robotics was most likely the 270 BC invention by the Greek inventor and physicist Ctesibus of a clock that measured time as a result of the force of water falling through it at a constant rate.

Over the centuries, automatae continued to fascinate people the world over. Crude clockwork automatae were created, including an entire mechanical orchestra in third-century BC China and, reportedly, devices built by artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) in AD 1495. In 1822, British scientist Charles Babbage (1791–1871) invented his difference engine, a device capable of performing mathematical calculations. For this achievement, he would one day be honored with the title “Father of the Computer.”

The term “robot” was coined in 1921 by Czech playwright Karel Capek (1890–1938) In his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) in which mechanical men created to do humanity's bidding take over the world and destroy their creators. This Frankenstein-like view of robots (or robota, meaning “forced work") was to become the prevailing view of robots in the fearful popular imagination.

It wasn't until the publication in 1939 of the story “I, Robot” by American science fiction author Otto Binder (1911–1974; writing as Eando Binder) that the world was introduced to Adam Link, an intelligent robot endowed with human emotions. “I, Robot” and its many sequels were the first robot tales to imagine “man-machines” that were not only smart, but also humanlike and nonthreatening in their behavior. Binder's stories inspired fellow science fiction author Isaac Asimov's (1920–1992) own intelligent/emotional robot stories beginning in 1941 and collected in a single volume in 1950 under the title I, Robot. (This title was chosen by Asimov's publisher; the Adam Link stories were also collected and published in book form in 1965 under the title Adam Link, Robot).

Binder's and Asimov's stories were captivating and inspiring to a whole generation of young readers. Many of them would translate their interest in science fiction to careers in science and technology. To them, the idea of friendly, helpful robots such as those popularized in the films and television programs of the 1950s to the present, including Forbidden Planet, Lost In Space, Star Wars, and others, were not a fantasy but a prediction of things to come.

Robots have become more common than most people think. That automated vacuum cleaner that operates by itself is a robot. So are those mechanical miniature cats, dogs, and humans sold as toys. Many industries – like the automotive industry – employ robots in the manufacture and distribution of goods. Robots also serve as stand-ins for humans in such dangerous activities as flying in surveillance aircraft, space and deep-sea exploration, handling explosives for police bomb squads, and mining. Indeed, robots are all around us.

To the new breed of robotic engineers, robots are both practical tools for home and work, as well as cutting-edge technology. Corporations, including the Honda automobile company, are hard at work pushing that technological edge with devices such as the humanoid robot Asimo (named in honor of author Isaac Asimov). Asimo can walk and run on two legs, observe and react to its environment, and learn to perform simple tasks independent of human control.

It will no doubt be the student participants in contests like the FIRST Robotics Competition who will take these remarkable robotic devices to the next level. With the proper education and training, today's young engineers will one day find themselves on the creative edge of a revolution in robotics and artificial intelligence, or AI.

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