What Is a Robot?

Do you know how to recognize a robot?

The word "robot" isn't well defined, at least not presently. A great deal of debate exists in the science, engineering, and hobbyist communities about exactly what a robot is, and what it is not.

If your vision of a robot is a somewhat human-looking device that carries out orders on command, then you're thinking of one type of device that most people recognize as a robot. It's not a common one and not practical yet, but it makes a great character in science fiction literature and movies.

Robots in other, more common guises are much more common than many people think, and you likely encounter them every day. If you've taken your car through an automatic car wash, withdrawn cash from an ATM, or used a vending machine to grab a beverage, you probably interacted with a robot.

So, What's the Definition of a Robot?

One common application of the term "robot" is for a machine that carries out a series of actions automatically and is typically programmed by a computer.

This working definition is very broad, however; it allows for many common machines to be defined as robots, including ATMs and vending machines. A washing machine meets the basic definition of being a programmed machine; it has various settings that allow you to alter the complex tasks it performs automatically. Yet, no one thinks of a washing machine as a robot.

In actuality, additional characteristics differentiate a robot from a complex machine. Chief among these is a robot's ability to respond to its environment autonomously to alter its program and complete a task, and it recognizes when a task is complete.

Robot: A machine capable of responding to its environment autonomously to automatically carry out complex or repetitive tasks with little, if any, direction from a human being.

Mars Curiosity Rover

 Pixabay / Creative Commons (CCO)

Robots Are All Around Us

Using this definition of a robot, take a quick look at the robots in common use:

  • Industry: Robots were put to use in industry early on, beginning with Unimate, a robot designed by George Devol in 1959 for General Motors. Considered to be the first industrial robot, Ultimate was a robotic arm used to manipulate hot diecast parts in automobile manufacturing, a task that was dangerous for humans to perform.
  • Medicine: Robots perform surgery, assist in rehabilitation, automatically disinfect hospital rooms and surgical suites, and a host of other tasks.
  • Consumer electronics: Perhaps the best-recognized household robot is the Roomba vacuum cleaner, which automatically cleans the floors around your house. Along the same lines are robotic lawnmowers that keep your grass clipped for you.
  • Robots you didn’t know were robots: This long list includes items you come across every day but probably don’t think of as robots: automatic car washes, speeding and red light cameras, automatic door openers, elevators, popular children's toys, and some kitchen appliances.

The History of Robots

Modern robot design, known as robotics, is a branch of science and engineering that relies on mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science to design and build robots.

Robotic design encompasses everything from robotic arms used in factories to autonomous humanoid robots called androids — synthetic organisms that replace or augment human functions.

Leonardo da Vinci was a pioneer in robotic design. Leonardo's robot was a mechanical knight capable of sitting up, waving its arms, moving its head, and opening and closing its jaws.

In 1928, a robot in humanoid form named Eric was shown at the annual Model Engineers Society in London. Eric delivered a speech while moving its hands, arms, and head. Elektro, a humanoid robot, debuted at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Elektro could walk, speak, and respond to voice commands.

Robots in Popular Culture

In 1942, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov's short story "Runaround" introduced the Three Laws of Robotics, which were said to be from the fictional "Handbook of Robotics" 56th edition, 2058. The three laws, at least according to some science fiction novels, are the only safety features required to ensure the safe operations of a robot:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by a human being except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

"Forbidden Planet," a 1956 science fiction film, introduced Robbie the Robot, the first time a robot had a distinct personality.

"Star Wars" and its various droids, including BB8, C3PO, and R2D2, are familiar characters on any list of robots in popular culture.

R2D2 on the red carpet
Noam Galai / Getty Images

The Data character in "Star Trek" pushed the limits of android technology and artificial intelligence, making some viewers wonder at what point an android achieves sentience.

Robots, androids, and synthetic organisms are all devices created to assist humans in various tasks. Current events and advances have put robotic technologies in our daily lives, whether we realize it or not, and their relevance will continue to increase in the future.

  • What is a Vector Robot?

    Anki's Vector Robot is a voice-activated helper who can answer questions, take photos, keep timers, and more using Amazon Alexa. It self-charges and can navigate your home on its own, avoiding both people and obstacles.

  • What is a Cozmo Robot?

    Cozmo is an educational toy robot designed to teach children the basics of coding. It moves around on its own. The 2.0 version comes with a 2MP camera and a full-color display.

  • What is the best robot vacuum?

    Lifewire recommends the iRobot Roomba i7+ overall for its customizable settings and cleaning power. If pet hair is an issue, the bObsweep PetHair Plus is worth a look, while the Dreame Bot L10 Pro is a good pick if you're looking for a vacuum/mop combo.

  • How can you make a robot for kids?

    The Bristlebot is a popular and beginner-friendly project that's great for kids. It involves cutting off the top of a toothbrush and attaching a small motor that runs on a coin cell battery.

  • Who plays the robot in Lost in Space?

    Bob May performed the Robot in the original Lost in Space television series, while Dick Tufeld provided the voice. Brian Steele voices the Robot in the 2018 Netflix reboot.

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