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The Big Debate: What is a Robot?

There is a big debate at the moment about what defines a robot. How automated and programmable must something be to fit within the “robot” category? Is a washing machine a robot? What about an automatic door? Or what about this Frozen Yoghurt machine?

When you hear the word “robot”, the first thing that probably comes to mind is an image of something off iRobot or another popular feature film; something humanoid with its own intelligence. Although these types of robots do exist, there are also autonomous drones, Vacuum cleaning robots and self-driving cars. A robot can be a lot of things these days, and the main point of them is to do things that humans can’t, so often being shaped like a human is the exact opposite of what is needed.

With so many different types of robot, how do you define exactly what one is? Engineers agree that it’s a physical thing, but still if you ask three roboticists to define a robot you’ll get three different answers. This isn’t just semantics either; thinking about what a robot really is has implications for how humanity deals with the unfolding future of the technology.

Think about a car, one driven by a human driver and the other is autonomous, starting up, navigating obstacles, and braking all on its own. Are these both robots? Nope. Some say that robots must be able to make decisions. It is a thinking agent that senses and interacts with its world. This means that intelligence is a core component of what makes a robot a robot and not a wind-up toy.

But just how intelligent does a machine have to be to qualify as a robot? Kate Darling, a roboticist at the MIT Media Lab, says “My definition of a robot, given that there is no very good universal definition, would probably be a physical machine that’s usually programmable by a computer that can execute tasks autonomously or automatically by itself,” whereas Hanumant Singh, a roboticist at North-eastern University, says a robot is “a system that exhibits ‘complex’ behaviour and includes sensing and actuation.” So, Mr Singh’s definition doesn’t mention anything about autonomy.

If a machine is autonomous, its more than likely that it is a robot but there are different degrees of autonomous intelligence. It’s simple enough to program a machine to respond to a single input with a single output, but as algorithms improve, robots will respond to their environments in ways that humans didn’t necessarily teach them too. And this kind of intelligence is the type that will get robots driving us around, helping the elderly, and keeping us company.

New think robots are more aware and sensitive to its users needs. This responsive type of robot will react differently once corrected by the user; they not only respond to users but anticipate them. This nuance is important, because robot is a powerful word. It is something that generates attention, fascination, and fear all at once.

For that matter, “robot” is certainly a simpler title than “physically embodied artificially intelligent agent”, but a robot is a machine that senses and acts on its world.

Active8 Robots works with multiple robotics manufacturers as we recognise that no two robots are the same.