What Are Robots?

What are robots? When I ask you: describe a robot for me, will you describe R2D2? Or will you start talking about a humanoid like Asimo? I guess most of you wouldn't think about all these industrial robots doing repetitive tasks in the factories.

So you see, "robot" is a very general word that includes a whole lot of different things. Let's start with a definition of robots, and then we'll go for a quiz in pictures.

1) Robots: definition

A robot is a machine that can sense and interact with its environment. That's vague, but I told you: "robot" is big word!

So basically, a robot needs 3 things, a mechanical body, some sensors, and some actuators. But what is most important is the link between the three. The robot must behave and take decisions according to its sensor inputs: to what it sees and feels.

Today, even Industrial Robots can feel if there is a product in front of them. They won't cut through the air or paint the assembly line just because there was one piece missing.

2) What are robots? Let's see what they're not!

First, a computer is not a robot, since it cannot interact with its environment. Actually, a computer that can talk and chat is "interacting", but it's not physical. It is just an AI (Artificial Intelligence).

While your car has a lot of sensors and can move physically. But when I say interacting, there is this meaning of autonomy: it has to move "by itself". Stanford and now Google have develop Autonomous Cars that can drive better than you (or at least than me...). These really deserve the name of robots, and the title of "really cool robots".

The remote control fighting robots you can sometimes see compete are not robots... They are just some toys like RC cars, though sometimes they can be a lot cooler. But I remember seeing some crazy RC boats able to fire rockets and disembark tanks on the side of a lake that were really cool. Still, cool RC toys are no robot, however cool they can be.

3) Here comes the quiz!

The rules are simple: Look at the pictures, and guess if what you see is a robot or not. The answers come after the last picture. And here is a more difficult question you can think about: How would you define a robot room?

1. A Satellite / From NASA
Is a Satellite a robot?
2. The Segway
Is a Segway a robot?
3. Da Vinci Surgical System / From Wikipedia
Is this a robot?

4) What are robots? The answers.

  1. Satellites are programmed to stay around the Earth, always at the same altitude and with the same orientations. While some perturbations can arise from gravity, small meteorites and others, the satellites keep have to correct their trajectory by in total autonomy. They feel their position and acceleration, and use their thrusters to maintain them. Satellites are robots.
  2. The Segway is a self-balancing robot that can be used as a vehicle. It can feel it's position and move accordingly to keep the user with a comfortable feeling of being always vertical. This is a rather simple robot, but converted into a very useful vehicle.
  3. The Da Vinci Surgical System is a machine that follows the movements of the surgeon and repeat them on a smaller scale in the patient. It uses complex control techniques to improve the movement of the surgeon into an even more stable movement. This is also a robot.

Now, about the Robotic Room... When I ask you: what are robots? you usually see one big box with a computer inside and arms or wheels outside. Anyway, you see one machine. But think about this: a computer linked to a robotic arm via Bluetooth, and using cameras from all around the room is still one big machine that can sense and interact with the world. So to build a robotic room, first take a whole bunch of sensors (cameras, pressure captors, microphones...). Then, take some robotic arms or other little robots, that can be the limbs of your room. Finally, you connect all this to a good CPU, and it will send orders to all the little robots in the room. You can't really say that all the robots are independant: it's just one big robots controlling several limbs. Welcome inside the robot...

Click here to go from What are robots? to the Robot FAQ.

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