The word, “robot” is not really all that well-defined right now. And there is a lot of debate going on in the engineering, science, even hobbyist communities about the exact definition, what a robot is and what it isn’t.
If you think of a robot as being a device that looks somewhat like a human, that does what it is told, then you have the same vision as many other people.
And while there are robots like that being developed now, they aren’t the most common ones. In fact, robots are far more common than most people realize and we are likely to encounter them every single day. If you use an ATM machine to take money out, if you take your car through an automatic car wash, grab a coffee from a vending machine, then you have likely had some interaction with a robot.
The Definition of a Robot
Most of us will agree on one thing: A robot is a machine that is programmed (usually) by a computer and automatically carries out actions. This is one definition and it is the one that allows for lots of different machines to be called robots, and that includes those vending machines and ATMs. Your washing machine could also be classed as a robot because it is a machine that is programmed with a number of settings. You select the setting, and the machine carries out the task programmed to that setting.
There are other characteristics that allow us to differentiate between complex machines and robots. The main one is that a robot can respond to the environment it is in, allowing it to change its programming so its task can be completed. It will also recognize when that task has been completed.
The official definition of a robot, at least until it gets changed again, is, “a machine capable of responding to its environment to automatically carry our complex or repetitive tasks with little to no direction from human beings”.
Robots Are Everywhere
If we use that definition of a robot, we can identify these as the robots commonly used:
Industrial: Robots are commonly used in industry, with the first one being Unimate, designed for General Motors in 1959 by George Devol. Thought to be the very first industrial robot, it is a robotic arm that was used for the manipulation of hot die-cast parts in the automobile manufacturing industry, a task that was considered far too dangerous for humans.
Medical: Medical robots are used for many different things like assisting with patient rehabilitation, performing surgery, disinfection of surgical suites and hospital rooms, and more.
Consumer: Most people have heard of Roomba, the very first robotic vacuum cleaner. And now there are many more models, including the very famous iRobot. Robotic lawnmowers and other such robots designed for consumers are also hitting store shelves.
And the list of robots you probably didn’t realize were robots is extensive. These are things you come across daily and include:
- Automatic car washes
- Traffic lights
- Speed cameras
- Kitchen appliance
- Some children’s toys
- Automatic door openers
What is Robotics?
Robotics is a branch of engineering and science that describes the modern design of robots. It includes electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and computer sciences needed in the design and building of robots.
Robotic design is wide-ranging and it covers everything from the design of a robotic arm commonly seen in factories, right up to the humanoid, autonomous robots, known as androids, that augment or replace human functions.
Many people won’t realize that Leonardo da Vinci dabbled in robotic design with a mechanical knight that could sit up, move its arms, head and open and close its jaws. Back in 1928, a humanoid robot called Eric was unveiled at the Model Engineers Society held in London. Eric wowed the crowds by delivering a speech, moving its head, arms and hands at the same time. And in 1939, we saw another humanoid robot called Elektro that was unveiled in New York at the World’s Fair. Elektra was able to speak, walk and could respond to voice commands.
Popular Culture Robots
In 1942, Isaac Asimov, a sci-fi writer, produced a short story called Runaround, introducing us to the Three Laws of Robotics. These laws were supposedly from the fictional book called the Handbook of Robotics, 56th Edition, 2058. And according to some sci-fi novels, those three laws are the only safety featured that are required to ensure robots operated safely:
- Robots may not directly cause injury to human beings or indirectly, by way of inaction, allow harm to befall any human being.
- Robots must obey any orders a human being gives them, except in cases where an order would contravene the first law.
- Robots must protect their own existence, so long as doing so does not contravene the first or second laws.
Some of the other robots from popular culture include:
- Robbie: A robot with a distinct personality, introduced in a 1956 sci-fi film called Forbidden Planet.
- R2-D2, C-3PO, BB-8: Introduced in the Star Wars movies
- Data: A Star Trek character who pushed the boundaries of android technology and AI to the point where viewers were questioning when an android actually achieves sentience.
Androids and robots have been and continue to be created to help the human race in some tasks. And if you follow the latest news you have probably realized that, before long, we will all have one of these personal androids to help us with our daily lives.