Roboticists

Joseph Engelberger

Joseph Engelberger

After observing the help for his aging parents, Engelberger saw the robotics automations could be used in the medical field. In 1984, Engelberger founded Transitions Research Corporation. He introduced the HelpMate, a mobile robot hospital courier, as the flagship product of his new company. He hoped to kick-start a new industry for in-home robots,

The medical robot was successful enough that the hospital ended up purchasing another.

HelpMate was acquired by Cardinal Health in the late 1990s, a move Engelberger came to regret, complaining that the new owners moved away from his preferred model of renting out robots toward selling off used, depreciated models.

Even after his departure from HelpMate and well into his 80s, he remained active in the promotion and development of robots for use in elder care.

He notably discouraged the notion of legged robots, arguing that robots should use wheels for locomotion, although he supported the use of robotic arms to allow the machines to interact with their surroundings. He worked on developing a two-armed robot to act as a “servant-companion” to seniors with limited mobility.

Engelberger died on December 1, 2015, in Newtown, Connecticut, a little more than four months after celebrating his 90th birthday.

*26 July 1925, Brooklyn, New York City, US

†1 December 2015, Newtown, Connecticut, US

Joseph Frederick Engelberger was an American physicist, engineer and entrepreneur. Licensing the original patent awarded to inventor George Devol, Engelberger developed the first industrial robot in the United States, the Unimate, in the 1950s.

Later, he worked as entrepreneur and vocal advocate of robotic technology beyond the manufacturing plant in a variety of fields, including service industries, health care, and space exploration. He has been called “the father of robotics” for his contributions to the field.

He grew up in Connecticut during the Great Depression, but later returned to New York City for his college education.

Engelberger received his B.S. in physics in 1946, and M.S. in Electrical Engineering in 1949 from Columbia University. He worked as an engineer with Manning, Maxwell and Moore, where he met inventor George Devol at a Westport cocktail party in 1956, two years after Devol had designed and patented a rudimentary industrial robotic arm. However, Manning, Maxwell and Moore was sold and Engelberger’s division was closed that year.

Finding himself jobless but with a business partner and an idea, Engelberger co-founded Unimation with Devol, creating the world’s first robotics company.

In 1957, he also founded Consolidated Controls Corporation. As president of Unimation, Engelberger collaborated with Devol to engineer and produce an industrial robot under the brand name Unimate. The first Unimate robotic arm was installed at a General Motors Plant in Ewing Township, New Jersey, in 1961.

After selling the first Unimate at a $35,000 loss, as demand increased, the company was able to begin building the robotic arms for significantly less and thus began to turn a substantial profit. Engelberger was widely hailed as a key player in the postwar ascendancy of Japanese manufacturing quality and efficiency.

An early proponent of increased investment in robotic systems, Engelberger published articles and gave congressional testimony on the value of using automation in space long before the successes of NASA’s Mars landers, Galileo, and other unmanned space science missions. He also consulted for NASA on the use of robotics in space exploration.


Marvin Minsky

Marvin Minsky

He also founded several other AI models. His book A framework for representing knowledge created a new paradigm in programming. While his Perceptrons is now more a historical than practical book, the theory of frames is in wide use. Minsky also wrote of the possibility that extraterrestrial life may think like humans, permitting communication.

In the early 1970s, at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, Minsky and Papert started developing what came to be known as the Society of Mind theory. The theory attempts to explain how what we call intelligence could be a product of the interaction of non-intelligent parts.

Minsky says that the biggest source of ideas about the theory came from his work in trying to create a machine that uses a robotic arm, a video camera, and a computer to build with children’s blocks. In 1986, Minsky published The Society of Mind, a comprehensive book on the theory which, unlike most of his previously published work, was written for the general public.

In January 2016 Minsky died of a cerebral hemorrhage, at the age of 88.

*9 August 1927, New York City, New York, U.S.

†24 January 2016, Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.

Marvin Lee Minsky was an American cognitive and computer scientist concerned largely with research of artificial intelligence (AI), co-founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AI laboratory, and author of several texts concerning AI and philosophy.

Minsky received many accolades and honors, including the 1969 Turing Award.

He attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School and the Bronx High School of Science. He later attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He then served in the US Navy from 1944 to 1945. He received a B.A. in mathematics from Harvard University in 1950 and a Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton University in 1954.

His doctoral dissertation was titled “Theory of neural-analog reinforcement systems and its application to the brain-model problem.” He was a Junior Fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows from 1954 to 1957.

He was on the MIT faculty from 1958 to his death. He joined the staff at MIT Lincoln Laboratory in 1958, and a year later he and John McCarthy initiated what is, as of 2019, named the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. He was the Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, and professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

Minsky’s inventions include the first head-mounted graphical display (1963) and the confocal microscope (1957, a predecessor to today’s widely used confocal laser scanning microscope). He developed, with Seymour Papert, the first Logo “turtle”. Minsky also built, in 1951, the first randomly wired neural network learning machine, SNARC. In 1962, Minsky worked in small universal Turing machines and published his well-known 7-state, 4-symbol machine.

Minsky’s book Perceptrons (written with Seymour Papert) attacked the work of Frank Rosenblatt, and became the foundational work in the analysis of artificial neural networks. The book is the center of a controversy in the history of AI, as some claim it to have had great importance in discouraging research of neural networks in the 1970s, and contributing to the so-called “AI winter”.


George Devol

George Devol

The first Unimate prototypes were controlled by vacuum tubes used as digital switches though later versions used transistors. Further, the “off-the-shelf” parts available in the late 1950s, such as digital encoders, were not adequate for the Unimate’s purpose, and as a result, with Devol’s guidance and a team of skilled engineers, Unimation designed and machined practically every part in the first Unimates.

In 1960, Devol personally sold the first Unimate robot, which was shipped in 1961 to General Motors. GM first used the machine for die casting handling and spot welding. The first Unimate robot was installed at GM’s Inland Fisher Guide Plant in Ewing Township, New Jersey in 1961 to lift hot pieces of metal from a die-casting machine and stack them.

In 2005, Popular Mechanics magazine selected Devol’s Unimate as one of the Top 50 Inventions of the Past 50 Years.

Devol died on August 11, 2011, aged 99, at his home in Wilton, Connecticut.

*20 February 1912, Louisville, Kentucky

†11 August 2011, Wilton, Connecticut

George Charles Devol Jr. was an American inventor, best known for creating Unimate, the first industrial robot. Devol’s invention earned him the title “Grandfather of Robotics”.

Choosing to forego higher education, in 1932 Devol went into business, forming United Cinephone to produce variable area recording directly onto film for the new sound motion pictures (“talkies”). However, he later learned that companies like RCA and Western Electric were working in the same area, and decided to discontinue the product.

During that time, Devol also developed and patented industrial lighting and invented the automatic opening door.

In the 1940s, Devol wasn’t thinking about robots. Instead, he was focusing on manipulators and his magnetic recording patents. He felt the world was ready for new ideas as he saw the introduction of automation into factories during this time.

In 1954, Devol applied for his seminal robotics patent entitled Programmed Article Transfer that introduced the concept of Universal Automation or Unimation; and was issued in 1954. At the suggestion of Devol’s wife, Evelyn, the word “Unimate” was coined to define the product, much the same as George Eastman had coined Kodak.

When he filed the patent for a programmable method for transferring articles, he wrote, “the present invention makes available for the first time a more or less general purpose machine that has universal application to a vast diversity of applications where cyclic digital control is desired.”

After applying for this seminal patent — which had not a single prior citation — Devol searched for a company willing to give him financial backing to develop his programmable articles transfer system. He talked with many major corporations in the United States during his search.

Through family connections, Devol obtained an audience with a partner in the firm Manning, Maxwell and Moore. Joseph F. Engelberger, at that time, was chief of engineering in the aircraft products division at Manning, Maxwell and Moore in Stratford, Connecticut. Engelberger was very interested, and Devol agreed to license Manning, Maxwell and Moore his patent and some future patents in the field.


Victor Scheinman

Victor Scheinman

Around 1972, Scheinman was asked by MIT’s Marvin Minsky to design a more compact arm. Minsky had funding from DARPA for a new robot and had visions of using it for remotely supervised surgery.

Scheinman spent the summer at the MIT AI lab, designing a new arm that became the MIT Arm, completing the design back at Stanford.

In 1979, Scheinman was approached by Philippe Villers, then at Computervision, to join a new robotics and machine vision company he was forming as co-founder and vice-president.

Automatix, which started operations in January 1980, was based in Massachusetts, but Scheinman ran its west coast office,   where he developed RobotWorld, an automation system based on the concept that robots should operate in their own work space, where there would be no potential conflicts with humans.

It consisted of cooperating small modules suspended from a 2-D linear motor that formed the roof of the workspace.

Victor Scheinman died on September 20, 2016, in Petrolia, California at the age of 73.

Up to the time of his death, Scheinman continued to consult and was a visiting professor at Stanford University in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

*28 December 1942

†20 September 2016

Victor Scheinman was an American pioneer in the field of robotics. He is mostly known for invention of the first electrically powered computer-controlled robotic arm.

He was a graduate of the now-defunct New Lincoln High School in New York. In the late 1950s, and while in high school, Scheinman engineered a speech-to-text machine as a science fair project.

Scheinman first experience with robots was watching The Day the Earth Stood Still around age 8 or 9.

The movie frightened him and his father suggested building a wooden model as therapy.

As a child and teenager Scheinman designed and constructed a voice-controlled typewriter; this Science Fair project both gave him entry into MIT as an undergraduate in engineering as well as providing a foundation for his later inventions.

After graduation, on the advice and recommendation of his advisor, Holt Ashley, he got a job at Boeing, where he worked on a lunar gravity simulator.

He left to travel the world for a while, and then enrolled at Stanford University’s graduate program, initially in Aeronautics and Astronautics, switching later to Mechanical Engineering, while still taking courses in A&E.

He complete his Masters degree in one year and stayed on to work on an engineer’s degree. He had summer jobs working on the Apollo program, with project on the Command Module heat shield and the Saturn rocket turbopumps.

Scheinman was awarded a research assistantship at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, working for Bernard Roth on building hands and arm for computers. The lab had an electric prosthetic arm developed circa 1962 by Rancho Los Amigos Hospital, known as the Rancho arm, which they had interfaced to a computer.

In 1969, Scheinman invented the Stanford arm,   an all-electric, 6-axis articulated robot designed to permit an arm solution in closed form. The three wrist axes intersect at a point, as prescribed by Pipers thesis.

This allowed the robot to accurately follow arbitrary paths in space under computer control and widened the potential use of the robot to more sophisticated applications such as assembly and arc welding.


Cynthia Breazeal

Cynthia Breazeal

MDS robot (mobile, dexterous, social) Nexi is another of Breazeal’s robots in this tradition, that combines rich social communication abilities with mobile dexterity to investigate more complex forms of human-robot teaming.

Breazeal is a professor of media arts and sciences at MIT, where she founded the Personal Robotics group at the Media Lab. She has written several books in the field of robotics and has published several peer-reviewed articles on the topic. She also serves on several editorial boards for autonomous and other robotic committees.

The issues she found growing up and studying in university was that robots much too often only interacted with other objects and not people. In addition to this, Breazeal found that if we gave robots the ability to perform non-verbal cues, such as those that humans inherently do everyday, then humans will treat and see robots more like companions and like other humans.

She also explored the idea of using robots to build better connections between humans, such as humans who live a long distance away from each other.

*15 November 1967, Albuquerque, New Mexico, US

Cynthia Breazeal is an American roboticist and entrepreneur. She is a former chief scientist and chief experience officer of Jibo, a company she co-founded in 2012 for creating social robots in the home.

Her passion for robotics and artificial intelligence was sparked by the designs and robotics in the popular motion picture, Star Wars, when she watched it for the first time at 10 years old.

Under the guidance of her parents, Breazeal earned a B.S. in electrical and computer engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1989, her M.S. in 1993, and her Sc.D. in 2000 in electrical engineering and computer science, both from MIT. She had an epiphany watching a NASA robot, and decided to switch her focus to social robotics.

She developed the robot Kismet as a doctoral thesis under Rodney Brooks, looking into expressive social exchange between humans and humanoid robots. Kismet and some of the other robots Breazeal co-developed while a graduate student at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab can now be seen at the MIT Museum.

Notable examples include the upper torso humanoid robot Cog and the insect-like robot Hannibal. She also worked on Leonard, Aida, Autom and Huggable. This was early in 2000s, which was before Siri and Alexa existed.

Leonardo was one of her earliest robots, co-developed with Stan Winston Studio and a successor to Kismet.

Leonardo was also used to investigate social cognition and theory of mind abilities on robots with application to human-robot collaboration, in addition to developing social learning abilities for robots such as imitation, tutelage, and social referencing.


David Hanson

David Hanson

Many of Hanson’s creations currently serve at research or non-profit institutions around the world, including at the University of Cambridge, University of Geneva, University of Pisa and in laboratories for cognitive science and AI research.

Hanson’s creation Zeno, a two-foot tall robot designed in the style of a cartoon boy, provides treatment sessions to children with autism in Texas as a result of a collaboration between the University of Texas at Arlington, Dallas Autism Treatment Center, Texas Instruments and National Instruments, and Hanson.

Other robots include Albert Einstein HUBO, a robotic head designed to look like Albert Einstein’s and put it on top of the “HUBO” bipedal robotic frame, and Professor Einstein, a 14.5 inch personal robot that engages in conversation and acts as a companion/tutor.

From 2011 to 2013 Hanson was an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Teaching at the University of Texas at Arlington.

He also taught in 2010 at the University of North Texas as an adjunct professor in fine arts, kinetic/interactive sculpture, and at the University of Texas at Dallas as an instructor of independent study in interactive sculpture.

*20 December 1969 Dallas, Texas

David Hanson Jr. is an American roboticist who is the founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Hanson Robotics, a Hong Kong-based robotics company founded in 2013. The designer and researcher creates human-looking robots who have realistic facial expressions.

He is mainly known for Hanson Robotics, the company that created Sophia and other robots designed to mimic human behavior. Sophia has received widespread media attention, and was the first robot to be granted citizenship.

Hanson has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design in Film, Animation, Video (FAV) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Dallas in interactive arts and engineering. 

In 1995 as part of an independent-study project on out-of-body experiences, he built a humanoid head in his own likeness, operated by a remote operator.

After he graduated from university, Hanson worked as an artist, and went on to work for Disney where he was a sculptor and material researcher in the Disney Imagineering Lab.

He has worked as a designer, sculptor, and robotics developer for Universal Studios and MTV. In 2004, Hanson built the humanoid robot Hertz, a female presenting animated robot head that took about nine months to build.

Hanson argues precise human looks are a must if people are going to effectively communicate with robots. Hanson believes social humanoid robots have the potential to serve humanity in a variety of functions and helping roles, like tutor, companion, or security guard.

He argues the realism of his work has the potential to pose “an identity challenge to the human being,” and that realistic robots may polarize the market between those who love realistic robots and those who find them disturbing.


Rodney Brooks

Rodney Brooks

Instead of computation as the ultimate conceptual metaphor that helped artificial intelligence become a separate discipline in the scientific community, he proposed that action or behavior are more appropriate to be used in robotics. Critical of applying the computational metaphor, even to the fields where the action metaphor is more appropriate.

In his 1990 paper, “Elephants Don’t Play Chess”, Brooks argued that in order for robots to accomplish everyday tasks in an environment shared by humans, their higher cognitive abilities, including abstract thinking emulated by symbolic reasoning, need to be based on the primarily sensory-motor coupling (action) with the environment, complemented by the proprioceptive sense which is a key component in hand–eye coordination

Introduced in 2012 by Rethink Robotics, an industrial robot named Baxter was intended as the robotic analogue of the early personal computer designed to safely interact with neighboring human workers and be programmable for the performance of simple tasks.

The robot stopped if it encountered a human in the way of its robotic arm and has a prominent off switch which its human partner can push if necessary.

Rodney Allen Brooks is an Australian roboticist, Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, author, and robotics entrepreneur, most known for popularizing the actionist approach to robotics.

He is a founder and former Chief Technical Officer of iRobot and co-Founder, Chairman and Chief Technical Officer of Rethink Robotics and currently is the co-founder and Chief Technical Officer of Robust.AI.

Brooks received a M.A. in pure mathematics from Flinders University of South Australia.

In 1981, he received a PhD in Computer Science from Stanford University under the supervision of Thomas Binford.

He has held research positions at Carnegie Mellon University and MIT and a faculty position at Stanford University. He joined the faculty of MIT in 1984.

He was Panasonic Professor of Robotics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He was director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (1997–2007), previously the “Artificial Intelligence Laboratory”.

In the late 1980s, Brooks and his team introduced Allen, a robot using subsumption architecture. As of 2012 Brooks’ work focused on engineering intelligent robots to operate in unstructured environments, and understanding human intelligence through building humanoid robots.


Peter Corke

Peter Corke

In 1995 he moved to Brisbane and established a program of research into mining automation focused on Dragline excavators, rope shovels and load-haul-dump (load-haul-dump) units.

 In 1996, Corke co-authored an early tutorial paper and later proposed the partitioned approach to visual control. He served as Research Director of the Autonomous Systems Laboratory of CSIRO’s Information and Communications Technology Centre (ICTC), from 2004 to 2007.

From 2005 to 2009 he worked on wireless sensor network technology, was a co-developer of the Fleck wireless sensor node, and investigated applications to environmental monitoring and agriculture, and virtual fencing. He was a senior principal research scientist when he left to take up a chair at the Queensland University of Technology in 2010.

From 2009 to 2013, he served as editor-in-chief of the IEEE’s Robotics & Automation magazine.

*24 August 1959, Melbourne

Peter Corke is an Australian roboticist known for his work on Visual Servoing, field robotics, online education, the online Robot Academy and the Robotics Toolbox and Machine Vision Toolbox for MATLAB (matrix laboratory).

He is currently director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Robotic Vision, and a Distinguished Professor of Robotic Vision at Queensland University of Technology. His research is concerned with robotic vision, flying robots and farming robots.

Corke received Bachelor of Engineering, Masters of Engineering and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Melbourne in Australia.

In 1984 he worked at CSIRO, formerly the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, on robotics. He developed an open-source robot control system and vision applications in food processing and for real-time traffic monitoring.