Shakey the Robot: The Little Machine Who Could Think

Before Alexa could understand your requests or Roombas could vacuum floors, there was Shakey – a pioneering robot built in the 1960s that became the first machine to combine perception, planning, and mobility.

Standing as a breakthrough in early artificial intelligence (AI), Shakey foreshadowed many key capabilities we now take for granted. Although extremely basic by today‘s standards, it awed observers in its era and inspired dramatic progress in subsequent decades of technology innovation.

In this in-depth explainer, we‘ll cover everything you need to know about Shakey the Robot and why it still matters 50+ years later. Think of it as an insider‘s guide to this seminal machine!

Overview: Why Shakey Matters

Shakey was constructed between 1966-1972 by researchers at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), led by Charles Rosen, Peter Hart, and Nil Nilsson.

Funded by an early grant from DARPA, the U.S. military research agency, Shakey pushed boundaries in integrating software and hardware for new robot capabilities:

  • Executing commands given in simple English phrases
  • Navigating environments using camera inputs
  • Planning routes around obstacles using pioneering algorithms
  • Pushing objects like blocks by coordinating perception with motor actions

While extremely basic compared to today‘s robots and AI assistants, Shakey awed 1970s audiences and inspired dramatic progress across automation, navigation, and language understanding.

Technologies we now take for granted – from automated warehouse robots to self-driving cars and Apple‘s Siri – owe inspirational debts to Shakey‘s pioneering integration of perceptual-reasoning abilities with real-world mobility.

Below we‘ll explore Shakey‘s full backstory across its technical architecture, historical impacts, and lasting cross-disciplinary legacy.

Hardware: A Towering Machine on Wheels

Physically, Shakey was designed as a towering wheeled robot platform…

[Diagram showing Shakey‘s modules]

It had three stacked components above its motorized base:

Lower section:

  • Wheels enabled movement
  • Shaft encoders tracked position
  • Contact sensors detected collisions

Middle section:

  • Video signal processors
  • Control logic circuits

Top section:

  • Cameras captured visual data
  • Ranging finder mapped proximity
  • Radio links enabled remote control

This hardware configuration allowed Shakey to take in sensory information and navigate environments accordingly – a novel capability at the time!

Over its lifespan, Shakey also underwent various hardware upgrades for more advanced operation:

YearComputing UpgradeDetails
1966SDS 940 ComputerInitial offboard system
1969DEC PDP-10More powerful successor system
1972Magnetic drum memoryRefrigerator-sized storage!

So while Shakey‘s software capabilities were pioneering, it also pushed boundaries in real-time robotics hardware to enable its landmark innovations.

Software: Pioneering Code that Could Reason

Beyond its outward appearance, Shakey‘s main breakthroughs came from trailblazing software achievements:

Programming Languages

Shakey used the Lisp and FORTRAN languages which were cutting-edge for the era, allowing advanced reasoning algorithms to be encoded.

Natural Language Understanding

It could parse simple English commands given by human operators like "Push the block off the platform", making it an early pioneer in language understanding abilities that foreshadowed today‘s voice assistants.

Automated Planning

Most significantly, Shakey was one of the first systems to use the STRIPS planning program. This let it make autonomous decisions about how to achieve goals – for instance navigating around obstacles to push a block off a platform.

STRIPS broke new ground in having software reason using perceptual inputs to plan activity sequences – now a standard capability leveraged across robots and AI.

Historical Significances: Inspiring Future Innovation

For its era, Shakey awed widespread audiences – being featured in Life Magazine in 1970 where it was introduced as the "first electronic person".

Beyond the hype, Shakey delivered seminal contributions that inspired major advances still relevant today:

  • Proved integration of planning algorithms with real-world mobility – set the path towards autonomous vehicles
  • Catalyzed new pathfinding algorithms like A* Search now used ubiquitously
  • Demonstrated parsing commands from natural language – foundation for assistants like Siri
  • Foresaw automation potential using perception, reasoning, and decision-making

Shakey only operated for a short period, but its legacy lived on by catalyzing dramatic progress in subsequent decades of AI and robotics innovation.

Legacy: Inspiring Today‘s Smartest Machines

While Shakey itself was decommissioned long ago, its place in history remains assured. There are even still working plans that could allow Shakey to be revived and reconstructed!

But more importantly, Shakey paved the way for evolutionary leaps in automation and intelligence that led towards today‘s robots and assistants.

Next time you use a smartphone, encounter an autonomous vehicle, or command your house using Alexa – spare a thought for Shakey!

The little tower on wheels whose own rudimentary shakes and nudges pushed boundaries for just how capable machine intelligence coupled with mobility could become.

How did you find this guide? Let me know if you have any other questions on Shakey or early AI history!

  1. Charles Rosen presenting Shakey:
  2. Life Magazine featuring Shakey in 1970:

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