What is a Robot?

What is REALLY a robot? On the surface, we could quickly define a robot as something matching what movies have taught us: a humanoid-looking thing (or barrel-looking thing with wheels), preferably with two eyes, or only one but very big, scary, and red, emitting human-like sounds. Something that could pass the Turing test, or get close to graduating at it.

But really, what makes a robot a robot? Some way to sense the environment, some way to process it, decide upon those processing taking into account internal “goals”, and a way to act upon it in the physical world. When I was studying for my PhD in Cognitive and Neural Systems, and later in the Boston University Neuromorphics Lab, we used to call this the perception-action loop. Being able to close this loop with a real-world actuator is, many would agree, paramount: an embodied solution, something that can alter the real world. Move itself, or move stuff around. A cell phone is not a robot (may be if they start growing legs, they will be! Samsung/Apple, be warned!).

Some examples of such robots include:

  • Airplanes above our heads
  • Bulldozers in a construction site
  • Tractors in a corn field
  • The sedan sitting in your driveway
  • Shopping carts in Home Depot
  • Roombas (!! Finally, a real robot!!)
  • Nest or a house alarm with some cameras

Today, we may think of drones, cleaning robots, telepresence robots, and logistic robots. Tomorrow, the range of what could be robot would include any object in your home or workplace that can fit some sensors, some processing power, and a motor/actuator: from a fridge, to a chair, to a piece of furniture, all the way down to a toy or a simple plant vase.

Relatively speaking, this opens up a Pandora box of possibilities. Shifting frame of reference for a second, and everything is open to become a robot. This will eventually make the term “robot” useless.

But that day, that will be a good day.