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.

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