so, what is a robot?

A common question placed in front of many of the researches here at Walking with Robots is, “What is a robot?”. A couple of definitions off the Internet have a robot as “a mechanical or virtual, artificial agent, which, by its appearance or movements, conveys a sense that it has intent or agency of its own” or perhaps “a machine that can automatically do tasks normally controlled by humans”. So we pose this question … ‘is this a robot?’:Perhaps you could argue the ‘moving pot’ has the intent to draw random multi-coloured lines on the paper; and its definitely mechanical, although, is it doing a task normally controlled by humans! And, just as importantly, is this a robot? It is definitely mechanical, although does the lack of an electronic component demote its status as a robot. Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robot) has a timeline which spans robotic development from modern robots right back to the third century B.C. Within the timeline is the first ‘programmable humanoid robot’, developed in 1206 and consisted of a mechanical boat with four automatic musicians. These early contraptions obviously did not have an electronic component although these are very often called robots, so perhaps our little walking friend is a robot! So how about some pens attached to a mobile? … mobilerobot
Silly as it may appear, its got legs, and a body, and looks very similar to the ‘robot’ consisting of a coffee cup and some pens, although, unfortunately this robot does not move. The vibration of a phone call is not enough to propel the robot across the table So; is it simple a badly designed robot that doesn’t work, or not a robot at all? … Its up to you!


3 Responses to “so, what is a robot?”

  1. 1 Noel Sharkey
    19 February, 2008 at 2:47 pm

    Great to see such a hive of activity today. I think it is increasingly difficult to define a robot. In the 1930s, they called anything with a sensor a robot – traffic lights were called robots becuase they used an “electric eye” (photsensor to you and me) to sense traffic. They are still called robots in South Africa.

    I am not sure if al-Jazari’s automata could be called humanoid. The claim that the automata on the boat were programmable was first made by me. I guess they have human form (they were static apart from the one arm) and so by definition are humanoid but when someone talks about a humaoid robot we are expecting something like Asimo nowadays.

    Anyway get on with the good work. I found this site because Gia contacted me through facebook.

  2. 20 February, 2008 at 9:34 am

    “What is a robot” is a tough question and, so far, I’ve not met two roboticists who can agree a definition. About a year and a half ago I tried to come up with a concise definition that summarises what I and at least some other roboticists think a robot is. Here it is:

    “A robot is a self-contained artificial machine that is able to sense it’s environment and purposefully act within or upon that environment.”

    An important characteristic of a robot is, therefore, that its sense-action loop is closed through the environment in which it operates (the act of moving changes a robot’s perception of its environment, thus giving the robot a fresh set of sense inputs). Thus, even simple robots may behave in a complex or unpredictable way, when placed in real-world environments. This is why designing robots for unsupervised operation in real-world environments is difficult.

    Actually this is an extract from my blog on the subject which, with some more discussion, is here:

    And, for more pieces on robots (Ecobots, Social Robots, Could Robots have Feelings, Robot Rights…) check here:

  3. 3 James
    20 February, 2008 at 10:48 am

    It is fascinating how many different definitions there are, and as Alan included in his blog, that a general definition found in dictionaries and perhaps outside of robotic circles is almost quite archaic. The idea of a robot being autonomous is in my opinion definitely very important, and will count out the robot examples above straight away, even excluding their lack to sense the environment, both of which I didn’t touch on in my original post.
    It is intriguing how robots could in the past be anything with a sensor as Noel was explaining and this has carried through to definitions being formulated nowadays, although other robotic characteristics, are being factored in as well.
    I think as ‘a robot’ can be so difficult to define, an example could be of help, although what kind of example? Johnny Five, or perhaps a robot out of the Robot Football competitions!

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