What is a robot?

by Stephen Whitten on April 26, 2010

Common industrial robots tirelessly do drudge work

The tale of the Tower of Babel in the book of Genesis explains why commonly understood definitions are critical to everything we do. In biblical Babylon, because all people spoke a single, simple language, the potential for human accomplishment was limitless. However, because humans revealed that they would use this power of communication for personal glory rather than a higher good, God created the “confusion of tongues” (different languages) to rein our productive capabilities.

As our company introduces a new kind of robotic technology to the security industry, the problem of communicating and understanding common meanings is significant. People have preconceived about robots that differ greatly from most formal definitions. Our FutureSentry robotic security guard matches every definition of a robot. Yet, because it does not look and act exactly like the well-known characters in movies or industrial documentaries, people do not think it is a bona fide cyborg. The confusion of tongues is once again hindering progress.

What is a robot? By clarifying the common meaning, we can make it easier for people to comprehend and take advantage of the many uses and benefits of robotic technology. These vary greatly from R2D2, automatic welders or self-guided vacuum cleaners.

The word “robot” is less than 90 years old

The word itself originated in the 1923 English translation of a 1920 Czech play about forced labor, “Rossum’s Universal Robots” by Karel Capek. It comes from the Czech words robotnik “slave,” robota “forced labor, drudgery,” and robotiti “to work, drudge. Its current meaning was introduced, popularized and expanded upon by author Isaac Azimov beginning in 1938.

FutureSentry Robotic Guard

FutureSentry robotic guard acts like a human, even without arms or legs

Major dictionary definitions include every legitimate application of the word. Meanings range from those close to the original (“an efficient insensitive person who functions automatically,” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2010) to descriptions matching our most popular notions (“A mechanical device that sometimes resembles a human and is capable of performing a variety of often complex human tasks on command or by being programmed in advance,” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.)

The description “sometimes resembles a human” presents a major problem. If a robot does not look or act like a human in one or more specific way, people have trouble accepting it as a robot. A robot is expected to:

    a) Be physically mobile, moving from place to place, or
    b) Have arms or other appendages that perform physical tasks.

Our robot’s human-like actions feature intuitive movements much like a live guard’s eyes and head surveying a territory and engaging anyone who enters. It even facilitates two-way verbal communication. However, because our robot surveys its area of responsibility from a fixed platform and does not run around waving its arms screaming “danger Will Robinson,” we are constantly challenged to explain why FutureSentry is a real robot.

Robots of the future must sense and think

One non-dictionary definition that describes the jobs of FutureSentry and many other robots is offered by San Diego’s Tech Museum of Innovation: “A robot is a machine that gathers information about its environment (senses) and uses that information (thinks) to follow instructions to do work (acts).” Our robotic guard does exactly that. When any activity occurs in the area it protects, it detects it and knows exactly what to do to prevent a crime from occurring.


Some day, everybody's favorite robot -- R2D2 -- will be a reality

Wikipedia’s discussion of the subject sheds light on the dilemma over meaning: “There is conflict about whether the term can be applied to remotely operated devices, as the most common usage implies, or solely to devices which are controlled by their software without human intervention. In South Africa, robot is an informal and commonly used term for a set of traffic lights.” Confusion of tongues is without question here.

Those of us working in robotics will surely continue to struggle with age-old challenge that lack of common meaning slows the forces of progress. However, the need for robotics is certain and perfectly described by 3rd and 4th grade students at Bethune Academy Elementary Magnet School in Houston, Texas:

“Why do we need robots? First, they are hardworking and reliable. They can do dangerous work or work that is very boring or tiring for humans. They can work around the clock without complaining and without needing rest, food or vacations. And robots can go places that humans cannot, such as the surface of Mars, deep under the ocean or inside the radioactive parts of a nuclear power plant.”

Stephen Whitten, founder and CTO of Communicated Enforcement, LLC, has been a law enforcement officer, security manager and systems strategist for more than 30 years.


I developed the idea of  “interactive security technology” in the mid 1980s to help convenience store owners who were struggling under the burden of robberies by armed individuals who cared little about killing a clerk for takes that averaged $80. Unless they posted human security guards around the clock — a costly, unwieldy and often unreliable method — armed robbers plundered their businesses and made it difficult at best to attract and retain quality employees. Neither CCTV cameras nor alarms seemed to deter these people.

They needed a solution that combined the clear threat of an immediate response that only a human guard can deliver with the efficiencies offered by surveillance technology. In addition to preventing crime, we needed to get store employees and customers out of harms way instantaneously.

The system we devised (cutting edge for the time, primitive by today?s standards) involved setting up setting up two-way audio and video platforms between more than 1,000 stores and our command center. We reduced armed robberies by more than 80% improved bottom-line results despite the costly implementation of pre-Internet dedicated communications lines.

This is what happened whenever a potential criminal entered a store and identified himself:

  • The clerks triggered an alert to central command, staffed always by off-duty or former law enforcement officers (known as intervention specialists), and then did their best to become invisible.
  • A remote security officer, who could see the action in the store, spoke directly to the subject, letting him know that we were monitoring his movements and foiling his crime. The want-to-be armed robber fled the scene immediately without further incident in the vast majority of cases.
  • In a small number of incidents, the subject — usually intoxicated — did not leave the scene immediately. When this occurred the intervention specialists actively engaged the subject, explaining the situation and communicating the risk to him. We thwarted those individuals, either because they fled after additional communication with the central monitoring facility or because police arrived while we kept the subject preoccupied.

The sustained reductions of armed robberies we achieved averaged 84% in stores that all were in high-incident locations throughout the United States.

Today, interactive security refers primarily to how surveillance and alarm technologies communicate with each other, or interface within a sophisticated network. However, to prevent crime (rather than record it or announce its occurrence) the only interaction that matters is that between the guard (human or technological) and the potential criminal.

To deliver value, interactive security technology must get directly involved with, confuse and intimidate people with bad intent before they can commit crimes. Otherwise, no matter how sophisticated the system, we are closing the barn door after the horse is out.

Stephen Whitten, founder and CTO of Communicated Enforcement, LLC, has been a law enforcement officer, security manager and systems strategist for more than 30 years.