What Is a Robot?

Robots may be all around us; do you know how to recognize one?

Depiction of Mars Curiosity Rover
Robots, such as the Mars Curiosity Rover can be used to investigate places that are dangerous for humans. Courtesy of Pixabay / Creative Commons (CCO).

The word "robot" isn't well defined, at least not presently. There's a great deal of debate 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 will agree is a robot. But it's not a very common one, and currently not very practical, either. But it does make a great character in science fiction literature and movies.

Robots are much more common than many people think, and we're likely to 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 If you've taken your car through an automatic car wash, withdrawn cash from an ATM, or used a vending machine to grab a beverage, then you may have interacted with a robot. It really all depends on how you define a robot.

So, How Do We Define a Robot?

A popular definition of robot, from the Oxford English Dictionary, is:

"A machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer."

While this is a common definition, it allows for many common machines to be defined as robots, including the ATM and vending machine examples above. A washing machine also meets the basic definition of being a programmed machine (it has various settings that allow the complex tasks it performs to be altered) that automatically performs a task.

But a washing machine lacks a few additional characteristics that help differentiate a robot from a complex machine. Chief amongst these is that a robot should be able to respond to its environment to alter its program to complete a task and know when a task is complete. So, the common washing machine isn't a robot, but a few of the more advanced models, which can, for example, adjust wash and rinse temperature, depending on local environmental conditions, could meet the following definition of a robot:

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

Robots Are All Around Us

Now that we have a working definition of a robot, let's take a quick look at the robots we find in common use today.

  • Industrial: Robots were quickly put to use in industry with Ultimate, 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 die-cast parts in automobile manufacturing, a task that was dangerous for humans to perform.
  • Medical: Robots in medicine perform a wide range of tasks, including performing surgery, assisting in rehabilitation, or even automatically disinfecting hospital rooms and surgical suites.
  • Consumer: Perhaps the best-recognized household robot is the Roomba vacuum cleaner, able to automatically clean the floors around your house. Along the same lines are a number of robotic lawn mowers that will keep your grass clipped for you.
  • Robots we didn’t know were robots: Our final list contains robots we come across every day, but probably didn’t think of as robots: automatic car washes, speeding or red light cameras, automatic door openers, elevators, and some kitchen appliances.

Robotics and the History of Robots

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

Robotic design encompasses everything from designing robotic arms used in factories, to autonomous humanoid robots, sometimes referred to as androids. Androids are the branch of robotics that deals specifically with humanoid-looking robots, or synthetic organisms that replace or augment human functions.

The word robot was first used in the 1921 play R.U.R (Rossum's Universal Robots), written by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek. Robot comes from the Czech word robota, meaning forced labor.

While this is the first use of the word, it is far from the first manifestation of a robot-like device. The ancient Chinese, Greeks, and Egyptians all built automated machines to perform repetitive tasks.

Leonardo da Vinci also engaged 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 "Handbook of Robotics" 56th edition, 2058. The laws, at least according to some science fiction novels, are the only safety feature required to ensure safe operations of a robot:

  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders given it by a human being except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • 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.

We couldn't leave Star Wars and its various droids, including C3PO and R2D2, off our list of robots in popular culture.

The Data character in Star Trek pushed android technology and artificial intelligence to the point where we're forced to ask, when does an android achieve sentience?

Robots, androids, and synthetic organisms are all currently devices created to assist humans in various tasks. We may not have reached the point where everyone has a personal android to help them through the day, but robots are indeed all around us.