One of the most important people in the world of robotics isn’t a conventional roboticist at all, but a science fiction author.
Isaac Asimov grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., reading pulp sci-fi magazines in his father’s candy store. Because the magazines had “science” in the title, he was able to convince his father that it was educational. It was the 1930s, and the popular perception of robots (if and when they became real) was that they were more monster than assistant. It was a perception that Asimov would unwittingly change forever.
Asimov’s imagination was completely captured by robots. He began writing and publishing speculative fiction in the late 1930s in which robots featured prominently. The short version of the story is that he simply never stopped after that, writing up a storm until his death in 1992.
Asimov wrote and edited a combined total of some 500 books in his lifetime (that’s right, five-hundred). And he didn’t stop at science fiction. His bibliography of published work famously spans nine of the 10 major categories of the Dewey Decimal System. Check out this description of his body of work from Wikipedia:
The prolific Asimov also wrote mysteries and fantasy, as well as much nonfiction. Most of his popular science books explain scientific concepts in a historical way, going as far back as possible to a time when the science in question was at its simplest stage. He often provides nationalities, birth dates, and death dates for the scientists he mentions, as well as etymologies and pronunciation guides for technical terms. Examples include Guide to Science, the three volume set Understanding Physics, Asimov’s Chronology of Science and Discovery, as well as works on astronomy, mathematics, the Bible, William Shakespeare’s writing and chemistry.
He was a member of Mensa, a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, and even has an asteroid named after him. It’s no wonder that he was one of the subjects of a Science Channel miniseries called “Prophets of Science Fiction.” In it, authors, roboticists, and scientists from a variety of disciplines take you through Asimov’s life and work, pointing out all the modern implementations of robots that he foresaw decades ahead of time.
Asimov is one of the most beloved science fiction authors of all time. Let's take a look at how he got there.
Asimov grew up in Brooklyn when his parents moved there from Russia. He passed the time reading sci-fi magazines in his father's candy store.
Robots were frequently portrayed as Frankenstein's-monster-type creations. But Asimov looked at them another way, more like intelligent appliances than monsters.
In his 1939 story 'Robbie,' a young girl becomes incredibly attached to her house robot despite a rampant culture of technophobia.
Walking by the factory with her father, the girl glances in and recognises Robbie. She runs in to meet him and is very nearly killed...
...but the robot saves her. Asimov is famous for his 'laws of robotics,' which prevent robots from hurting humans, or through inaction, allow humans to come to harm.
We certainly have a way to go before developing robot technology akin to Robbie, but scientists are already well on their way to developing social, domestic robots for the home.
Social humanoid robots are already serving a purpose in the medical world. This robot engages patients in lightweight physical therapy, matching their arm movements.
Asimov's vision of robot-as-appliance became reality in 1961 when General Motors introduced Unimate, a robot that worked on factory floors, spot-welding car parts together.
This simple idea has obviously evolved into an essential part of our modern manufacturing process, working more quickly and safely than humans.
Asimov was drafted into the army during WWII. He hated it, but was honorably discharged after nine months.
His military experience got him thinking of new potentials for robots. What if they could take the place of humans on the battlefield?
The famous and controversial Predator drone is an unmanned aircraft in use on the battlefield today.
This is a military robot designed by iRobot (yes, the robot vacuum cleaner company). It's used for defusing bombs, scouting terrain, and is one more tool for generally keeping soldiers safer.
Here's another military robot creation from iRobot, called the Warrior. It can climb stairs and tread through water without any issues.
Although Asimov began to branch out from science fiction, the robots were never far from his mind. He began to see them as the solution to interstellar travel and colonization.
And while we have yet to send them into space without humans, robots obviously play a large role in space exploration today.
The most advanced of these prosthetics are wired to the brain and are controlled with nothing more than a thought.
Asimov died in 1992 due to heart complications, but he left behind an expansive body of work that's still as relevant as ever. And as robots figure into our daily lives more often, his work will continue to stay that way.
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