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Machina Speculatrix: The very first Autonomous Robots

In the 1950s, William Grey Walter built the very first, truly autonomous robots.

Perched atop three wheels, covered by a plastic shell, rather like a turtle, these robots possessed a simple, vacuum tube computer, along with a light sensor, touch sensor, propulsion motor, and steering motor.

The design of the hardware was stunningly simple by today's standards. Even the smallest insect had more processing power. Yet, for all their simplicity, these were the first robots to demonstrate emergent behaviour: Their behaviour was not limited to simply obeying what they were programmed.

The robots, Elmer and Elsie (ELectro MEchanical Robot, Electro mechanical LIght SEnsitive) were nicknamed Machina Speculatrix by their creator, because they demonstrated a tendency to explore their environment.

His robots were unique at the time, because they did not exhibit the same behaviour twice. Instead, the robots possessed simple reflex codes governing what to do if a situation occurred. Simple commands, in large numbers which overlapped, fought for supremacy, and interacted with widely changing environments.

This emergent life-like behaviour was the first recorded instance of artificial life, or A-life, a field that has since come to dominate both physical robotic, and virtual bot development.

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