The just-issued World Robotics Report announced an all-time high of 517,385 new industrial robots installed in 2021 in factories around the world, representing 31% year-on-year growth. That brought the current stock of operational robots around the globe to about 3.5 million, a new record.
This robot record was reached half a century after the development of SHAKEY, the world’s first “mobile intelligent robot.” According to the 2017 IEEE Milestone citation, it “could perceive its surroundings, infer implicit facts from explicit ones, create plans, recover from errors in plan execution, and communicate using ordinary English. SHAKEY’s software architecture, computer vision, and methods for navigation and planning proved seminal in robotics and in the design of web servers, automobiles, factories, video games, and Mars rovers.”
In November 1963, Charles Rosen, head of the AI group at SRI, wrote a memo in which “he proposed development of a mobile ‘automaton’ that would combine the pattern-recognition and memory capabilities of neural networks with higher-level AI programs,” according to Nils Nilsson in his book The Quest for Artificial Intelligence.
Later, Rosen recalled the origin of the robot’s name: “We worked for a month trying to find a good name for it, ranging from Greek names to whatnot, and then one of us said, ‘Hey, it shakes like hell and moves around, let’s just call it Shakey.’” Nilsson: “Because of various engineering idiosyncrasies, the vehicle shook when it came to an abrupt stop.”
For SRI, where SHAKEY was developed between 1966 and 1972, its historical significance and “legendary status” lies in its unique “combination of robotics and AI into one system. It also teased the powerful potential of robots. You can thank Shakey for inspiring countless technologies such as cell phones, global positioning systems (GPS), the Roomba and self-driving vehicles.”
According to the IEEE, SHAKEY was envisioned as “an experimental platform for integrating all the subfields of artificial intelligence as then understood. Logical reasoning, autonomous plan creation, robust real-world plan execution, machine learning, computer vision, navigation, and communication in ordinary English were integrated in a physical system for the first time…
In more specific technical terms, Shakey is historically significant for three distinct reasons: (1) Its control software was structured—a first for robots—in a layered architecture that became a model for subsequent robots; (2) Its computer vision, planning and navigation methods have been used not only in many subsequent robots, but in a wide variety of consumer and industrial applications; and (3) Shakey served as an existence proof that encouraged later developers to develop more advanced robots.”
Then and now, developments in AI research turn into practical reality for the media, a reality fraught with excitement and anxiety. SHAKEY was prominently featured in a Life magazine article (November 20, 1970) sub-titled “The fascinating and fearsome reality of a machine with a mind of its own.”
MIT’s Marvin Minsky (1969 Turing Award winner “for his central role in creating, shaping, promoting, and advancing the field of Artificial Intelligence”) who served as a consultant to the SHAKEY project, is quoted extensively in the article. Minsky predicted with “quite certitude” that “in from three to eight years we will have a machine with the general intelligence of an average human being. I mean a machine that will be able to read Shakespeare, grease a car, play office politics, tell a joke, have a fight. At that point, the machine will begin to educate itself with fantastic speed. In a few months it will be at genius level and a few months after that its powers will be incalculable.”
Minsky’s certitude was shared in 1970 by other “people working on Artificial Intelligence,” as well as by many people (working and not working on AI) today who are confident about the arrival sooner or later of “artificial general intelligence (AGI)” and machine “super-intelligence.”
While extending Minsky’s timetable to 15 years, all the AI researchers interviewed by Life in 1970 “agreed that there would be such a machine and that it could precipitate the Third Industrial Revolution, wipe out war and poverty and roll up centuries of growth in science, education and the arts.” And just like today, the hype was accompanied by anxiety: “’Man’s limited mind,’ says Minsky, ‘may not be able to control such immense mentalities… Once the computers got control, we might never get it back. We would survive at their sufferance. If we’re lucky, they might decide to keep us as pets.”
Just like today, the wild pronouncements were based on the creation by human intelligence of a very limited machine “intelligence.” And just like today, regardless of the anxiety this generated, the work had to go on to achieve the “holy grail of AI” because of competition for national glory (or survival). To the reporter’s question of why not “just unplug the thing if it got out of hand?” Minsky answered: “The Russians are only about three years behind us in AI work. With our system switched off, they would have us at their mercy.” Russia, China, same difference. For AI researchers, it’s not just patriotism, but also a question of funding.
It’s also a question of fundamental assumptions about the “fundamental foundation of [human] intelligence.” Most (or all?) of the people researching, investing in, and promoting AI today agree with Minsky’s assertion in the 1970 Life article: “The human brain is just a computer that happens to be made out of meat.”
The history of AI includes many technological and conceptual breakthroughs. It has also repeatedly demonstrated that—in our relations with technology—the more things change, the more they stay the same.