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What exactly is a robot?

posted Jun 20, 2012, 1:27 AM by Kurt E. Clothier   [ updated Feb 5, 2013, 5:18 PM ]
Although there is no exact definition of "robot," to me it is some electro-mechanical structure that can perform tasks at least semi-autonomously. I have long since argued that the typical "robot" we think of as a walking, talking humanoid clone is incredibly far fetched, but I am surprised everyday. However, I struggle to see how many of today's "robots" can really be classified as so.

For example: the Roomba from iRobot is an incredibly stupid machine that drives in circles avoiding obstacles, but it has a vacuum attached to it so it at least doing something productive. It needs no human input to function, so it could even be considered completely autonomous. On the other hand, the killing machines seen on shows like the classic "robot wars" are no more robotic than a child's remote control car - they just happen to have spinning blades attached to them. Somewhere in the middle are the unmanned vehicles and drones currently used by the military. They are not yet capable of autonomous operation,  but do work on a semi-autonomous level.

But then again, so does an airplane. Think about it, a pilot pushes buttons and pulls levers and the plane flies. Would flying the plane from a remote location through use of cameras suddenly classify the plane as "robotic?" This is where I struggle with the labeling of much of today's technology as robots. The newer Ford cars with "Park assist" can somewhat park themselves; are they then considered "robotic cars?"

To me, the term robot does not apply to the capability or function of a machine as much as it does the intelligence and autonomy of the machine. I mentioned earlier that a Roomba is a "stupid machine," but at least it makes all of its own decisions, once a human has turned it on. Does a UAV decide to take off and spy on some area or fire a missile because it decided that a target was found? Or can it only do so when instructed to by an operator.

Even though I label her as a 'robot,' by my own definitions, Flora is just a humanoid remote controlled apparatus. She had no sensory feedback - the arms moved in accordance to a pre-programmed loop, no different than the speed of a flashing light on some toy. Her mechanical makeup and appearance alone makes her no more robotic than a Volkswagen. With that in mind, if she had some way of sensing where her arms were or how full her flower basket had been and then been capable of making some decisions based on that data, an argument could be made that her semi-autonomy would classify her as robotic in nature.

As a further example of my point, when I push the correct sequence of buttons on the microwave, a light comes on, the tray spins, and the microwave radiation begins until a set time has passed, at which point it 'bings"' and shuts off. An HVAC system even has sensors for feedback. The machine makes its own decisions as to when to turn on and shut off. Is it robotic? Is it so different from the Roomba that drives around in circles until you turn it off? I just wonder what the magic line is that separates 'robot' from 'remote controlled apparatus' or other automated equipment.