I have decided for my next project i would like to build some autonomous mobile robots. The first kind of these robots was created by Grey Walter (1949), he called them ‘Elmer and Elsie. When they ran out of battery power they went to the recharge station and recharged them selves, how cool is that!
Grey Walter’s most famous work was his construction of some of the first electronic autonomous robots. He wanted to prove that rich connections between a small number of brain cells could give rise to very complex behaviors – essentially that the secret of how the brain worked lay in how it was wired up. His first robots, which he used to call “Machina Speculatrix” and named Elmer and Elsie, were constructed between 1948 and 1949 and were often described as tortoises due to their shape and slow rate of movement – and because they ‘taught us’ about the secrets of organisation and life. The three-wheeled tortoise robots were capable of phototaxis, by which they could find their way to a recharging station when they ran low on battery power.
In one experiment he placed a light on the “nose” of a tortoise and watched as the robot observed itself in a mirror. “It began flickering,” he wrote. “Twittering, and jigging like a clumsy Narcissus.” Walter argued that if it were seen in an animal it “might be accepted as evidence of some degree of self-awareness.”
Later versions of the robots were exhibited at the Festival of Britain in 1951. Walter stressed the importance of using purely analogue electronics to simulate brain processes at a time when his contemporaries such as Alan Turing and John Von Neumann were all turning towards a view of mental processes in terms of digital computation. His work inspired subsequent generations of robotics researchers such as Rodney Brooks, Hans Moravec and Mark Tilden. Modern incarnations of Walter’s turtles may be found in the form of BEAM robotics.
Recently, one of the original tortoises was replicated by Dr. Owen Holland, of the University of the West of England in 1995 – using some of the original parts. A specimen of a second generation turtle is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. Another example can be seen in London UK in the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery.
- The Living Brain, , Penguin, London, 1967
- An Electromechanical Animal, Dialectica (1950) Vol. 4: 42—49
- An imitation of life, Scientific American (1950) 182(5): 42—45
- A machine that learns, Scientific American (1951) 185(2): 60—63
- The Living Brain, New York (1953)