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So... What's a robot? Answered

This question seems to keep coming up and is worthy of some discussion.

It seems there are a bunch of 'official' definitions for the thing. Here's a few, with examples.

  • A programmable, autonomous machine with sensors that allow it to do complex stuff. So, Roomba: yes. Factory robot: yes. UAV: sometimes. Battle-bots: no. Vibrobots: no. Mechanical man sculpture: no.
  • A machine in the shape of a person. Mechanical man sculpture: yes, Battle-bots, vibrobots: sometimes. Roomba, factory robots, UAV: no.
  • An electronic device in a configuration without an existing name. Sculpture: No. Everything else: yes.

Any chance of consensus? Thoughts?

Personally I feel a word's meaning comes from its use. If you call it a robot and you can get people to agree with you, it's a robot. That's pretty much how language works and is why I called my little project a robot. I'm no where near the first person to call a pager motor+battery a robot. But I was an English major, you Engineers out there are likely to get twitchy when things aren't up to published spec.


Robots are like organisms in that they have many levels of sophistication. Someday we may have a classification system for robots, the way we do for organisms. An amoeba is an organism of a very low level of sophistication. A bristle-bot is a robot of very low level of sophistication. A fish is an organism in the animal kingdom  of medium sophistcation. A Roomba is a robot of medium sophistication. And a factory reprap is a highly sophisticated robot that self replicates. Robots like the ficticious C3PO etc will likely fall into a classification analogous to humanoids or other primates.

I like your ideas of robot taxonomy. In that sense all of the things I listed as robots would simply be a branch on the tree. Possibly an illustrated chart is in order...

With that in mind it brings up another question: Where do we draw the line between computer, robot, and device?   Or is it a continuum? 

On the computer side, my laptop is not a robot.  But if I run chatbot (or spambot) software, I have turned it into a robot. (Same form, different function.  Which is the heart of the original robot concept.)

On the device side an electric toothbrush isn't a robot, but a few minutes work with a knife and some glue can turn it into a bristlebot. (Same parts, new function, which is the heart of the modern Maker movement.)

Running classification where both form and function can be ignored or recognized at will is a challenge.

There was a sci-fi book written in the 60s-70s (I'll have to find it's name) where sentinent robots meet humans. One thing I found especially interesting about that was that a human looked at his watch, and a robot wondered why the human was wearing a tomato on his wrist. i.e. he saw the watch as a lower form of non-thinking (plant) lifeform.

i would think that a UAV used in the military since nothing is truly autonomous how could we make a robot that would program its self? that is when artificial intelligence comes into play

well first of all I'm not really an engineer or have a background in the English language, i'm just a 15 year old kid who thinks stuff like this is cool :)