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Mathematics and Robotics

Image of Honda's humanoid robot, ASIMO via Wikipedia.

Aside from their popularity in science fiction and dystopian literature, robots play many important roles in society today, from handling hazardous materials to welding components, performing surgery, or vacuuming carpets.

At a recent lecture at MAA's Carriage House, Florian Potra of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County surveyed the rich history of human efforts to create artificial intelligences, particularly noting the intertwining of developments in mathematics with advances in technology that led to self-operating machines known as automata and to the field of robotics.

"While the history of robotics is very short, the idea of a robot may be as old as the earliest mathematical studies," Potra said. "It has always been a special component of the human psyche."

"Its origin is to be found in myths," he continued, referring to the ancient Greeks, who believed the god Hephaestus fashioned two automata out of gold to work for him. In more practical terms, Heron  of Alexandria and other early Greek tinkerers and inventors created a variety of complex mechanical devices and animated figures. Some of Heron’s creations were even powered by steam.

Potra also noted the later contributions of such luminaries as Al-Jazari, an Islamic scholar, mathematician, inventor, and mechanical genius of the 13th century, and Leonardo da Vinci, who designed a programmable robot that could move its limbs, twist, and sit.

"Although no robot survives, there is plenty of evidence that [Leonardo da Vinci] built several robots," Potra said.

At the same time, folktales and legends about animated anthropomorphic beings crafted from inanimate matter provided their own windows on developing technologies. One famous story in Jewish folklore concerns the Golem of Prague, created by Rabbi Loew to protect the Jews of Prague from anti-Semitic attacks. The golem eventually becomes too violent and is deactivated and locked away.

"By analyzing the myth of Pygmalion, Frankenstein's monster, the Golem of Prague, and other automaton legends, a framework emerges for understanding how different cultures express desires and fears about technology and the future,” Potra argued.

The 19th century brought fundamental contributions to the field of robotics with the work of Charles Babbage, an English mathematician and inventor who originated the concept of a programmable computer, and Ada Lovelace, who created programs for Babbage’s analytical engine.

Another important advance came from George Boole, who invented a new type of logic—the basis of modern digital computer logic. His algebra became central to the design of computer circuits.

The 20th century saw tremendous advances in mathematics, computer science, and technology, getting a significant boost from conceptual contributions by Norbert Wiener, John von Neumann, Alan Turing, and Claude Shannon, all leading to an explosion in robotics innovation. Potra particularly lauded Shannon’s contribution to the digital age.

The word “robot” itself was introduced to the world in the 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Czech writer Karel ÄŒapek. Isaac Asimov coined the term “robotics” in a 1941 short story.

MAA Distinguished Lecture: Florian Potra

By the first decade of this century, robots roved Mars, performed surgery, built other mobile robots, played the violin, provided healthcare, and more.

“There are now more than 1 million robots in operation worldwide,” Potra said. According to Bill Gates, he added, the number of robots is going to increase exponentially, and this growth is going to mark a new industrial revolution.

“It will mean a lot of jobs,” Potra said. “it’s important to invest in research and development in robotics because many people think this is going to be the sector of the economy that will have the most growth 10 to 15 years from now.”

“The problem,” he added, “is that we are number four in the world right now.”

Looking to the future of robotics, Potra noted that “new technologies will have to be invented to have a truly intelligent robot with brainpower comparable to the human brain.”

“I’m convinced that such technologies will be invented in the not-too-distant future,” he predicted. “I expect the new technologies will give us the possibility of having a very powerful computer in a very small space.” 

 Lecture Podcast (mp3)

An Interview with Florian Potra


This MAA Distinguished Lecture was funded by the National Security Agency.