Episode 47 Debate - What is a Robot?

Episode 47 Debate - What is a Robot?

Postby Sabine Hauert on 12 Mar 2010, 10:40

For the past couple episodes, we've been trying to find a definition for a robot. This week we received an excellent one from Wendelin Reich who is professor in social psychology at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study at Uppsala University in Sweden.

A robot is an artificial, physically embodied ‘agent tool’. In other words, a thing that a large number of people call a ‘robot’ tends to satisfy the following criteria:
(1) It can be described as an ‘agent’ [more precisely put: it displays the typical properties of objects which we humans, and other animals, were evolutionarily designed to view as agents: self-propelled motion; goal-orientation; instrumental rationality etc.*];
(2) it is a physical object [as opposed to a virtual agent etc.];
(3) it has been constructed by someone else [humans or aliens, but not biological evolution];
(4) it fulfills a function for this someone [which makes it a ‘tool’];
(5) and it is, or is expected to be, under ultimate control by this someone [that is, a robot is autonomous only to the extent that we allow it to be so, and a ‘rogue robot’ is, by definition, an undesirable aberration].


At ROBOTS we're pretty convinced with this definition and would like to know what you think! Therefore, we've started this discussion topic so that you can debate this definition and all the other great ones we've received that are listed below. Sincere thanks to all the contributors who made this debate possible!


"A robot is a physical machine manipulated to automatically perform an undesirable work function that supports a desired human outcome." Kevin Makice

"A reprogrammable, multifunctional manipulator designed to move material, parts, tools, or specialized devices through various programmed motions for the performance of a variety of tasks." Robot Institute of America, 1979

"A robot is a physical apparatus designed to perform a specific function. Functional complexity varies greatly – from the simple repetitive task involving little or no embedded software, to a set of complex tasks requiring decisions to be made based on parameters sensed in real time. These tasks and decisions may involve cooperation with other robots and/or assistance from one or more humans either directly or remotely."

"A robot is an intelligent machine that moves , reacts and interacts with its environment in an autonomous manner."

"A robot must be able to sense it's environment, understand that environment and make calculated and intelligent decisions to affect that environment or it's position within that environment while producing useful work without human intervention."

"A robot is a machine with a very small and very powerful processor (and or sensing devices) with an equivalent powerful software program mounted on a strong flexible frame or chassis which out performs all present machine of its time in all parameters/categories (accuracy, easy to program or instruct/easy controls,intelligent,reliable)"

"I think a robot should have to have a certain amount of autonomy, or be pre-programmed enough to do some work by itself. If it's completely remote controlled, it shouldn't be called a robot. I'm bringing this up because it seems like there are a lot of machines being used in the military and by police to disarm bombs and such, which, from what I gather, are really just remote controlled. Am I right? They look like what we think robots should look like, because they have arms and they're mobile. But my opinion is, if they can't really do anything on their own, they shouldn't be called robots!..."
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Sabine Hauert
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Re: Episode 47 Debate - What is a Robot?

Postby vanderburgh on 24 Mar 2010, 23:19

I think robots are essentially about upper and lower limits of imitation or "mimesis". In other words, how close can we get to behaviors that would be indistinguishable from those of humans or other life forms (upper limit), and/or how much can we simplify a given technology and still conserve a certain similarity with humans or other life forms (lower limit)? The former would be consistent with the predictions around Carnegie-Mellon from the late 1970s onward, or with so-called "Strong AI"; the latter would be more in synch with recent developments in swarming, distributed intelligence, embodiment, etc. But both tendencies are interested in limits. Implicit (and necessary to any rigorous analysis) in the definition of the robot are definitions of "life", "intelligence", "autonomy", and "utility", just to name a few.
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Re: Episode 47 Debate - What is a Robot?

Postby donpaulo on 01 Apr 2010, 22:23

A robot is nothing more than a fancy puppet.
NOTE: I am not being silly. This is really how I see a robot. Think about it: at any point in time, who is in control of every action of the robot? The human, of course. Albeit software or a remote control. No wonder robots don't care about anything...
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