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mechanical device designed to perform the work generally done by a human being. The Czech dramatist Karel Čapek popularized the expression [Czech,=compulsory labor] in his play R. U. R.
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science and technology of general purpose, programmable machine systems. Contrary to the popular fiction image of robots as ambulatory machines of human appearance capable of performing almost any task, most robotic systems are anchored to fixed positions in factories
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(1) A self-acting device or set of devices that carry out processes for obtaining, converting, transmitting, and utilizing energy, materials, and information according to a specified program, without direct human participation. Automatons are used to increase productivity, to lighten the work of man, and to free him from working under conditions where access is difficult or there is a danger to life.
Self-acting devices were already known in remote antiquity. With their help, priests performed “wonders,” seemingly by divine powers, for the blindly worshiping people.
In antiquity and the Middle Ages, devices were repeatedly created that imitated the movements of living creatures without apparent motive force. There was no practical value in such “automatons,” but although they were entertaining toys, they proved to be, in a way, the forerunners of modern automatons. An important influence in the development of automatons was the invention of clocks with driving springs (P. Henlein, Germany, 1500’s) and, in particular, of pendulum clocks (C. Huygens, Holland, 1657), which were the first devices to use the principles and individual mechanisms that have been subsequently used extensively in automatons.
However, automatons were first used in industry in the 18th century during the industrial revolution, when the forms of working facilities were such that human effort was replaced by forces of natural origin and routine methods in organizing work by the deliberate use of accumulated experience.
The automatic devices of this period, which were primarily experimental in character, include Andrei Nartov’s automatic carriage for copying lathes (1720’s) and I. I. Polzu-nov’s float regulator for boiler water level (1765) in Russia; J. Watt’s centrifugal governor (1784) in England; and J. Jacquard’s card-programmed loom for making coarse-patterned fabrics (1808) in France.
The automatic devices of the 18th and 19th centuries were based on the principles and methods of classical mechanics. The development of electrical technology—the practical use of electricity in the military, communications, and transportation—led to a number of discoveries and inventions which served as a scientific and technical basis for new electrically operated automatons. Of great significance were the works of Russian scientists: the invention of the magnetoelectric relay by P. L. Shilling (1830)—one of the basic elements of electrical automation; the development of a number of automatic railroad signaling devices by F. M. Baliukevich, V. M. Tagaichikov, and others in the 1880’s; the creation of the world’s first automatic telephone exchange by S. M. Apostolov-Berdichevskii and M. F. Freidenberg (1893–95); and many others.
The advent of electronics—a new, independent field of science and technology—led to the appearance of fundamentally new electronic automatic devices and whole complexes, from the electronic relay to control computers. As automatons developed, their potential and fields of application broadened.
From mechanisms that performed one particular function without direct human participation, automatons changed into complicated automatic apparatus that successfully perform monitoring, regulating, and control functions. Instead of individual automatons, automatic complexes, often employing electronic computers, began to be used in industry, power engineering, and astronautics.
The design, circuitry, and operating principles of an automaton are in large measure determined by its purpose, operating conditions, form of power used, and method of programming. The following types of automatons are distinguished: technological—for example, automatic casting devices, automatic meat choppers, automatic metalworking lathes, and various automatic aggregates; power engineering—automatic instruments and devices of power systems, electrical machines, electric power grids, and so forth; transportation—for example, automatic engineers and automatic stops; computing, including calculating machines; commercial—automatic food preparers, vending machines, and so forth; military—for example, guidance systems and automatic weapons; automatic household appliances; and others.
Depending on the operating conditions and the power used, some automatons incorporate mechanical, hydraulic, electrical (electronic), and pneumatic devices, as well as combinations of these, such as pneumoelectric. There are also automatons that operate by means of explosive energy —for example, a submachine gun.
The automaton’s entire operating sequence and auxiliary operations are called the operating cycle. An automated apparatus in which the operating cycle is interrupted and which requires mandatory human intervention to restart is called a semiautomaton. Generally, the operating cycle of an automaton is determined by a program that is incorporated into its design. The program may be external, using punched cards or some other data carriers, or it may utilize copying or simulation apparatus. For instance, the operating program of wristwatches is controlled by the design of the escapement mechanism and the balance wheel which, in most cases, get energy from a windup spring. The program in a metalworking copying lathe is provided by a master form. The automatic switches of an electric power grid trip out when the current, voltage, or frequency values go beyond established limits. In an automaton for vending merchandise, when money is inserted, the apparatus that counts the total received is turned on and compares the total with the established price for the merchandise to be sold; if it checks, the apparatus that delivers or authorizes the delivery of the purchase is actuated. In this case, the automaton not only replaces the services of a salesperson in delivering the merchandise to a buyer but relieves the salesperson from the calculations involved during payment for that merchandise. Automatons like those cited are, as a rule, narrowly specialized and highly productive; however, it is usually difficult or completely impossible to change their work cycles.
An automaton program that is provided by punched cards, magnetic tapes, and so forth, has little to do with its design and construction, thus ensuring its universality—for example, metalworking, weaving, and printing machines with programmed control, automatic dispatchers and engineers, electronic computers, and space vehicles. Automatons that can remember and generalize their operational experience and use this suitably to meet changing conditions have become widely accepted. These automatons must be equipped with such items as transducers and feedback arrangements, a memory unit, a control unit, and a self-adaptive unit, all of which considerably complicate their design and construction. However, in this case the functional potential of automatons is enriched as much as needed to perform extremely complex technological processes and control processes, and thereby not only are men freed from heavy physical labor but their function in the realm of control is simplified.
(2) One of the basic concepts of cybernetics; an abstract model of a technological or biological system which processes discrete (digital) data in discrete time cycles. Finite automatons have been studied the most.
G. I. BELOV
automaton(robotics, mathematics, algorithm)
Automata theory, the invention and study of automata, includes the study of the capabilities and limitations of computing processes, the manner in which systems receive input, process it, and produce output, and the relationships between behavioural theories and the operation and use of automated devices.
See also cellular automaton, finite state machine.