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What is a robot?

Attempts to help people understand what a robot is.


Before you all wonder why I'm posting this here, let me clarify. From what I've noticed, most people don't actually seem to know what a robot is. Many people think all robots are humanoid, and have the ability to eat people! I've created a post at Squidoo to help dispel some of the myths and let people know what a robot actually is. Currently, searching for "what is a robot" doesn't return particularly helpful answers so I'd quite like to get this to the top of Google.

Here's the link: What is a robot?

If you don't think I should have this up here, please tell me and I'll take it down :) Likewise, if you think it's a good article, feel free to spread the link :P



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I can understand your point. If I ask my friends what is a robot they think of a humanoid.

You try to differentiate on this. So give more examples on your website. 

  • Is a autonomous webcam that takes a picture every minute a robot?
  • Is my washing machine a robot?
  • Is my new volvo a robot too?
  • Why is my mobilephone no robot?
  • Where is the line between a machine and a robot?

I think examples would help here. Since you only show humanoid robot pictures on your site you implicitly manifesting this "every robot is a humanoid" miss-beliefe even more. So show some diversity. Pic some of the LMR robots as example.

And elaborate as much angles on this topic to clearify this. And don't forget to include references to further readings.

Thank you for your effort!

I'm in the process of adding some now :) It's a little difficult, as it's almost down to opinion - but really, if it's autonomous it's a robot. At least that's the dictionary definition! I've used one of your robots as an example :)


I think you will find that there are many definitions of the word robot, and many conflict with each other. It is also challenging to come up with a definition that is broad enough to include all types of robots without also including many other things that would not be considered robots.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary's 1st definition of a robot (which you would think would be a good source) is

"a machine that looks like a human being and performs various complex acts (as walking or talking) of a human being; also : a similar but fictional machine whose lack of capacity for human emotions is often emphasized"

I find this to be a terrible definition. Wikipedia's approach is much better, admitting that the word defies an exact definition, and discussing some of the concepts instead.

Purists of one stripe or another may set a narrow definition. Some say a robot must be autonomous. Others allow that partial autonomy or remote control may be acceptable. 

I tend to have a rather open mind when it comes to defining a robot. Whether it be ancient clockwork automatons, industrial manufacturing robots, hobby robotics like you find here at LMR, military/civil remote operated robots for hazardous duty, remote controlled combat robots, or a Mars rover, there are even more applications of robotics principals than there are definitions. 

I like it like that.


This is interesting, I definitely agree with not liking Merriam-Websters definition, and I think you're right about not really being able to define robot. Perhaps I've set a slightly narrow definition myself in my page, and in fact I think I'll add a an area at the top of the page to point that out - kind of like a disclaimer. Having said that, it would be nice if there was a standard definition for the term robot. But we can't have everything! 

Thanks for your well written comment :)

Which has been covered here before at LMR. Everybody  has a different idea of what a robot is. I personally hate calling rc machines robots but it is such an embedded term for them now it is useless trying to argue the point.

The origin of the word comes from 1920 from a czech fellow named Karel Capek. And is drawn from Robota which means serf labour. Which I guess means you could define your washing machine as a robot as it certainly does perform some useful work for you that saves you effort and time.

Any machine that can replace human labour under this definition should be called a robot in my honest feelings. However I think in the case of remote controlled machinery for warfare or bomb disposal, due to the amount of human effort still employed to operate these things, they do not clearly fit the term. As there is very little to none displacement of human labour in the situation.

So I guess what I am saying is for me a robot must be autonomous. I'm not saying humanoid, just autonomous in order that it can truly perform useful work without requiring equal or larger amounts of work from it's human owner or operator.

btw. I think you've done a pretty good job at covering this at your link.

I personally think a robot should be autonomous too, or at least require very little human input. For example, a time lapse camera could be considered as a very simple robot. I've added a section to the top of my page as a disclaimer to let people know that everything in the post is simply my opinion.

Yes, we've covered this before, but it is still a fun question to take out into the light once in a while. 

BTW, I pretty much agree with you on the autonomy thing. I would not call something that I built a robot if it does not have some degree of autonomy.

I disagree about the bomb-disposal and hazardous material handling devices though. This is where things get muddy for me. They are pretty much fancy RC devices. However, they are definitely doing labor that a human would otherwise have to do (at great personal peril). The thing is taking the place of a human to do a job. So I think it fits very well with the origins of the word, despite the lack of autonomy.

I understand that NASA's Mars rovers have a degree of autonomy, since the time lag between commands and our ability to see the result of those commands would make normal remote control a bad idea. 


That's a good point about them taking the place for safety reasons. And yeah the mars rover does need to act autonomously as well to overcome latency issues. And drones can also go into autonomous mode. So I guess it really comes down to what kind of robots we all like.

Everyone has their own ideas on that I think.

In my humble opinion, defining characteristics of a robot is the ability to sense at least some aspects of its environment and modify it's behavior based on perceived information.  A time lapse camera would not be a robot, but a camera that takes a picture when it senses movement could be.

But as you dig deeper into concepts, more and more hairs tend to get split.  A washing machine is not a robot, since it merely goes through a series of timed actions.  On the other hand, if it senses water temperature, and adjusts the temperature to maintain optimal washing conditions, does that make it a robot?

With this in mind, industrial robots are automatons, rather than robots.  Unless, they're "smart" enough to recognize say, screws over washers, and find target holes no matter where they lie on the work surface.  Maybe "problem solving" should be added to my definition.

On a related note, I define "android" as an artificial human.  Which would turn Karel Capek's proto robots into androids--had the word actually been invented at the time.  And George Lucas WOULD have to muddy the water with his (copyrighted) term "droids" which gets applied to pretty much all robotic creatures in the franchise.

Jamies "giant robot" is actually an insectoid vehicle.  Oddbots robots are true robots by the way they sense what's going on around them and react.  The robots here on LMR are generally divided among robots, remote controlled vehicles, automatons and some amusing mechanical devices.

But no one's ever going to agree to all this.  The word "robot" will probably always be moving target and poorly defined.  At least until one goes to court in pursuit of rights or restitution for damages.

Thanks for the feedback, I've changed the time lapse camera to motion detection camera because thinking about it, a time lapse camera is just a timer attached to a camera - if that was a robot, then so would an alarm clock be. 

I would really like a robot to be defined as an autonomous being - something that has at least some artificial intelligence. I'd like to think my article sticks to that, without trying to force an idea of what a robot is onto people. Really, my article is designed to show people that there are more robots in different forms than they might think.

It would be nice if a clear cut definition could be agreed, but, like you say, that's not going to happen unless a court is involved.