A robot can be defined as a man-made entity with a body and an intelligent feedback-driven connection between sense and action - not under direct action-by-action human control. Usually, the intelligence is a computer or microcontroller running a program. However, much work has been done on robots with wired intelligence. The action is usually motors or actuators that move an arm or propel the robot.

Web bots are named after robots, but exist only in code, and move throughout web pages gathering information. Such entities are usually called software agents to distinguish them from a robot with a body. This definition is rather loose, as even an air conditioner will satisfy the criteria. Therefore roboticists extend the definition by adding a criterion that robots must be entities that perform more than one action. Therefore, air conditioners and similar single-function entities are reduced to a control problem.

Alternately, robot has been used as the general term for a mechanical man or automaton resembling an animal either real or imagined, but has come to be applied to many machines which directly replace a human or animal in work or play. This definition would imply that a robot is a form of biomimicry.

Table of contents
1 Conceptual history
2 Robot ethics
3 Robots Today
4 Current Trends
5 Robots vs. Humans
6 Standards
7 Robot topics
8 Famous roboticists
9 External links

Conceptual history

The word robot comes from the Czech word robota meaning "drudgery", "servitude", or "forced labor", especially the so-called "labor rent" that survived in the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1848. The word robot was first used by Karel Capek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) (written in 1920; first performed 1921; performed in New York 1922; English edition published 1923). 1. Although Capek's robots were organic artificial humans, the word robot is nearly always used to refer to mechanical humans. The term android can mean either one of these, while a cyborg ("cybernetic organism" or "bionic man") would be a creature that is a combination of organic and mechanical parts.

In the general sense of automaton, the biggest robot in the world is said to be the Maeslantkering, a storm surge barrier in the Nieuwe Waterweg waterway near Hoek van Holland, Netherlands, which automatically closes when needed. This seems however like ordinary infrastructural capital that happens to be directly controlled by instructional capital in the form of embedded control software - the gate does not satisfy requirements of mobility or generality.

The idea of artificial people dates at least as far back as the ancient legend of Cadmus, who sowed dragon teeth that turned into soldiers; and the myth of Pygmalion, whose statue of Galatea came to life. In classical mythology, the deformed god of metalwork (Vulcan or Hephaestus) created mechanical servants, ranging from intelligent, golden handmaidens to more utilitarian three-legged tables that could move about under their own power. Hebrew legend tells of the golem, an clay statue animated by Kabbalistic magic. In the far North of Canada and in Western Greenland Inuit legends tell of the Tupilaq (or Tupilak), which can be created by a sorcerer to hunt and kill an enemy. Using a Tupilaq for this can be a two edged sword since a would be victim skilled enough in sorcery can stop an attacking Tupilaq and reprogram it to seek and destroy its creator.

In the early 1700s, Jacques de Vaucanson created an android that played the flute, as well as a mechanical duck that reportedly ate and defecated. E.T.A. Hoffmann's 1817 short story "The Sandman" features a doll-like mechanical woman, and Edward S. Ellis' 1865 "Steam Man of the Prairies" expresses the American fascination with industrialization. A wave of stories about humanoid automatons culminated with the "Electric Man" by Luis Senarens in 1885.

Once technology advanced to the point where people foresaw mechanical creatures as more than toys, literary responses to the concept of robots reflected fears that humans would be replaced by their own creations. Frankenstein (1818), sometimes called the first science fiction novel, has become synonymous with this theme. When Capek's play RUR introduced the concept of an assembly line run by Robots who try to build still more Robots, the theme took on economic and philosophical overtones, further disseminated by the classic movie Metropolis (1927), and the popular Blade Runner (1982) and The Terminator (1984) .

Serious speculation on this theme has continued to the present day, see for example the articles clanking replicators and carbon chauvinism, and the essay Why the future doesn't need us, by Bill Joy (cover story of Wired, April 2000). Speculation on the difference between having the outward capacity to communicate like a human, and deserving respect as one, have from time to time fueled some debates on personhood that question the criteria by which human rights are assigned in the law. Great Ape personhood advocates often cite the absurdity of granting personhood to corporations - and apply likewise the charge of robot fetishism to those who believe or advoate that cold intellectual entities like robots or corporations deserve such status.

Robot ethics

The concern that robots might displace or compete with humans is common. In his I, Robot series, Isaac Asimov created the Three Laws of Robotics (later four) in a literary attempt to control the competition of robots with humans. Asimov said in the introduction to his novel The Caves of Steel that in the same series he also made "the very first use of the word robotics in the history of the world, as far as I know." The laws or rules that could or must apply to robots or other "autonomous capital" in cooperation or competition with humans have spurred investigation of macro-economics of this competition, notably by Alessandro Acquisti building on much older work by John von Neumann. Although the idea of a specialized field of robotics was basically founded on these laws, today roboticists seemingly make no effort to implement them in their work.

Robots Today

Robots are being used today to do the tasks that are either too dirty, dangerous, difficult, repetitive or dull for humans. This usually takes the form of industrial robots used in manufacturing lines. Other applications include toxic waste cleanup, space exploration, mining, search and rescue, and mine finding. Manufacturing remains the primary market where robots are utilized. In particular, articulated robots (similar in motion capability as the human arm) are the most widely used. Applications include welding, painting and machine loading. The automotive industry has taken full advantage of this new technology where robots have been programmed to replace human labour in many simple repetitive tasks. There is much hope, especially in Japan, that home care for an aging (and long-lived) population can be better achieved through robotics.

As of 2002, several major Japanese companies, especially Honda and Sony, had begun selling commercial humanoid robots as "pets". Dog-shaped robots are, however, in much wider production, the premier example being Sony's Aibo.

Recently, tremendous progress has been made in medical robotics, with two companies in particular, Computer Motion and Intuitive Surgical, receiving regulatory approval in North America, Europe and Asia for their robots to be used in minimal invasive surgical procedures. Laboratory automation is also a growing area. Here, benchtop robots are used to transport biological or chemical samples between instruments such as incubators, liquid handlers and readers. Other places where robots are likely to replace human labour are in deep-sea exploration and space exploration. For these tasks, arthropod body types are generally preferred. Mark W. Tilden of Los Alamos National Laboratories specializes in cheap robots with bent but unjointed legs, while others seek to replicate the full jointed motion of crabs' legs.

Experimental winged robots and other examples exploiting biomimicry are also in early development. So-called "nanomotors" and "smart wires" are expected to drastically simplify motive power, while in-flight stabilization seems likely to be improved by extremely small gyroscopes. A significant driver of this work is military research into spy technologies.

Also, the popularity of the TV shows Robot Wars and Battlebots, of college level robot-sumo wrestling competitions, the success of "smart bombs" and UCAVs in armed conflicts, grass-eating "gastrobots" in Florida, and the creation of a slug-eating robot in England, suggest that the fear of an artificial life form doing harm, or competing with natural wild life, is not an illusion. The worldwide Green Parties in 2002 were asking for public input on extending their existing policies against such competition, as part of more general biosafety and biosecurity concerns. It appears that, like Aldous Huxley's concerns about human cloning, questions Capek raised eighty years earlier in science fiction have become real debates.

Dean Kamen, Founder of FIRST, and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) created a competitive forum that inspires in young people, their schools and communities an appreciation of science and technology. Their Robotics Competition is a multinational competition that teams professionals and young people to solve an engineering design problem in an intense and competitive way. In 2003 the competition will reach more than 20,000 students on over 800 teams in 24 competitions. Teams come from Canada, Brazil, the U.K., and almost every U.S. state. Unlike the Robot sumo wrestling competitions that take place regularly in some venues, or the Battlebots competitions on TV, these competitions include the creation of the robot.

Some critics question the likely robot ethics that will emerge if their early evolution is guided only by work and by violent competitions.

Current Trends

When roboticists first tried to mimic human and animal gaits (?? years ago), they discovered that it was incredibly difficult; requiring more computational power than what was available at the time. So, emphasis was shifted to other areas of research. Simple wheeled robots were used to conduct experiments in behavior, navigation, and path planning. When they were ready to attempt walking robots again, they started small with hexapods and other multi-legged platforms. These robots mimicked insects and arthropods in both form and function. As noted above, the trend towards these body types offer immense flexibility and proven adaptability to any environment. With more than 4 legs, these robots are statically stable which makes them easier to work with. Only recently has progress been made towards bipedal locomotion in robots.

A related trend is that robots seem to be getting cheaper and smaller in size in coordination with the smaller and cheaper electronics that control them. Also, many robots are designed in simulation long before they actually are built and interact with a real physical environment.

Robots vs. Humans

The United Nations University Millennium Project explored the question of the future interaction of robots and man. One of their scenarioss, nominally placed in the year 3000, was called The Rise and Fall of the Robot Empire. In that scenario, looking back to the present day:

Robots were human-like and became philosophers, jugglers, politicans, orators, actors, teachers, acrobats, artists, poets, and shepherds of the less adept humans. Society had a new caste system, and humans were a race tolerated and somewhat pitied by the machines that could outthink them and outperform them in any measure of strength, vitality, speed and endurance. The most important argument made in the application of gene technology to improve human mental and physical performance was "we have to keep up with the robots". With resources becoming scarcer, natural and artificial selection began to operate in earnest, distributing available resources to those entities that were best able to exploit them - for the most part, the robots. How could humans regain control? The answer was to use human ingenuity, randomness, secrecy, dedication, and distraction. It took a while, but it worked. This at least began to stabilizze the robot population.

Many dismiss such a scenario as optimistic and mere pro-technology propaganda. There are many examples of robots displacing humans, and, the U.S. Predator drone plane and cruise missile technologies are examples of highly sophisticated artificial intelligence used to kill human beings. Many fear weapons of mass destruction based on the small ubiquitous robot.

Even without overt malicious programming, robots and humans simply do not have the same body tolerances or awarenesses, leading to accidents: In Jackson, Michigan on July 21, 1984, a factory robot crushed a worker against a safety bar in apparently the first robot-related death in the United States.

At LongBets, a prediction market, there are outstanding predictions that self-defense against robots will be a standard curriculum item in this century.


Open Automaton Project. The purpose of this project is to engineer modular software and electronic components, from which it is possible to assemble an intelligent PC-based mobile robot suitable for home or office environments.All source code is distributed under the terms of the GNU General Public License

Robot topics

Famous roboticists

External links

Robot is also:

  • A type of camera
  • the name of the dog who discovered the cave paintings at Lascaux
  • a search algorithm on the internet