Thursday, May 2, 2013

What Exactly is a Robot?

Although there is no exact and accepted definition of "robot," I believe one to be an electro-mechanical structure that can perform tasks at least semi-autonomously. I have long since argued that the typical "robot" we think of as a walking, talking humanoid clone is incredibly far fetched, but I am surprised everyday with advancements in technology. However, I struggle to see how many of today's "robots" can really be classified as so.

For example: the Roomba from iRobot is an incredibly stupid machine that drives in circles avoiding obstacles, but it has a vacuum attached to it so it at least doing something productive. It needs no human input to function beyond turning it on, so it could even be considered completely autonomous. On the other hand, the killing machines seen on shows like the classic "robot wars" are no more robotic than a child's remote control car - they just happen to have spinning blades attached to them. Somewhere in the middle are the unmanned vehicles and drones currently used by the military. They are not yet capable of autonomous operation, but do work on a semi-autonomous level. 

Then again, so does an airplane. Think about it, a pilot pushes buttons and pulls levers and the plane flies. Would flying the plane from a remote location through use of cameras suddenly classify the plane as "robotic?" This is where I struggle with the labeling of much of today's technology. Modern vehicles are becoming more autonomous, for example, cars with Ford's "park assist" can somewhat park themselves. Are they then considered "robotic cars?" 

To me, the term robot does not apply to the capability or function of a machine as much as it does the intelligence and autonomy of the machine. I mentioned earlier that a Roomba is a "stupid machine," but at least it makes all of its own decisions, once a human has turned it on. Does a UAV decide to take off and spy on some area or fire a missile because it decided that a target was found? Or can it only do so when instructed to by an operator. 

Even though I label her as a 'robot,' by my own definitions, Flora is just a humanoid remote controlled apparatus. She had no sensory feedback - the arms moved in accordance to a pre-programmed loop, no different than the speed of a flashing light on some toy. Her mechanical makeup and appearance alone makes her no more robotic than a Volkswagen. With that in mind, if she had some way of sensing where her arms were or how full her flower basket had been and then been capable of making some decisions based on that data, an argument could be made that her semi-autonomy would classify her as robotic in nature.

Flora on her big day
As a further example of my point, when I push the correct sequence of buttons on the microwave, a light comes on, the tray spins, and the microwave radiation begins until a set time has passed, at which point it 'bings' and shuts off. An HVAC system even has sensory feedback. The machine makes its own decisions as to when to turn on and shut off. Is it robotic? Is it so different from the Roomba that drives around in circles until you turn it off? I just wonder what the magic line is it that separates 'robot' from 'remote controlled apparatus' or other automated equipment. I think our society's infatuation with the possibility of devices which can cook and clean for us has created a market for anything labeled with the R word.

The First of May

While many people around the world have celebrated today as "May Day," it is also known as "Law Day" here in the United States. This non-government holiday was first decreed by then President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a day to reflect upon and remember the importance of law in this great nation.

The First of Many - Part Two

This blog was created to supplement my primary website, Projects by K.E.C. I had intended on including a blog within that website for the purpose of allowing visitors an in depth look into the catacombs of my mind - a place to discuss the origins of technology, society, and existence  man's obsession with himself, and what I had for breakfast that morning.

At first, it seemed to work OK, but the formatting was odd, and the style was not what I had in mind. In the end, posting something became too much of a hassle, and so I rarely used it. That is where this site comes in. I don't see this blog as a separate site, but more of an extension. The content will continue to be relevant to whatever I decide relevancy to be on that particular day, but thoughts about matters that most of the population could not care less about are sure to flourish. So without further ado, I present the thoughts, theories, and things that keep me up at night!