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What is a robot?

I’ve been thinking about this since the Sphero days… what makes something a ‘robot’? And I mean more than in the sense of the dictionary definition. Is it the autonomy? The ability to sense? Does it have to be physical? Etc.

I have my own opinion, but curious to hear what people think!

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^robot cowboy sheriff tax^


A very interesting philosophical question - I remember talking about this at length in grad school, and never really reaching any sort of solid consensus. On the whole, people tend to say ‘I know it when I see it.’

For me, however, a robot has 2 things:
1 - Complex autonomy. By ‘complex’ I mean detailed and intricate enough that humans watching the system’s behavior resort to simplified mental models to understand it. This rules out simple feedback systems (thermostats) or rote repetition systems (factories)
2 - Physical embodiment. A purely virtual/software system could be super cool and do lots of interesting things, and require simplified mental models, but I wouldn’t call it a robot.

As you may guess, most things around today that are called ‘robots’ don’t meet my definition, and I cringe inside a little every time I hear them referred to as such.


I view robots by a comparison to a machine. To me, a robot is distinguished from a machine in that a robot takes in some sensory input that mimics a human’s own (sight, sound, taste, feel, smell),processes that input, and performs an action dictated by that sense. Compared to the thermostat example above, this definition would exclude a thermistor controlled thermostat from being a robot (a machine), but would include a processor controlled one.

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Are these robots? I guess they call them “automa” since they can only repeat a single task. I wouldn’t call mechanisms that repeat a single task only robots, even though thinking of an assembly line arm that does the same thing over and over, day in and day out is what most people might think of. When thinking of what a “robot” could be described as being, I would say it is an articulate-able object or entity that can do so under it’s “own” direction (programmed explicitly or not) or the guidance (think RF controller) but not direct manipulation of an external entity (else it would be a marionette). So I would include the robot arms since they have the capacity to be reprogrammed for new tasks, even if most the time the task will be the same.

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@tenwall just wrote a blog post related to this topic:


I guess that is answered.

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Likely a debate that will rage on for a long time - with many different perspectives.

Per Wikipedia:

A robot is a machine—especially one programmable by a computer— capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically. … Robots may be constructed to take on human form but most robots are machines designed to perform a task with no regard to how they look.

By this definition (and many have argued) a Nest thermostat is a robot. I don’t agree with that even though it senses, makes complex decisions and actuates. For me, there has to be some form of physical movement.

I think one could appropriately argue that the more “human senses” a robot had, and the more human-like actions it could take the more-robotic it is. So, Nest and Alexa are a “level 1” robot, strawberry picking robots “level 2” and C3PO a “level 5” or something like that…


All the ideas related to the question are good and demonstrate it’s not an easy question to answer. I think that as robots continue to become more prevalent and diversified, the answer to the question will become less important.

Consider: what is a computer?

We could all present our definitions that would probably vary slightly. Then the questions would follow: is a smart phone a computer? How about an iPad, Echo, Nest Thermostat, autonomous car, smart watch, Fitbit…?

Suppose some authoritative organization declared that smart phones should not technically be considered “computers”. Would we suddenly see them as less valuable?

As robotics advances I think we will be able to notice the “robotic” aspects of devices and be less concerned as to whether or not it should truly be considered a robot (I’m already there…).