The term “robot” is not easily defined, but its etymology is reasonably simple to track. It is not a very old word, having been implemented into the English language fairly recently. It dates back to the early twentieth century, when Polish playwright Karel Capek presented a unique and somewhat prophetic glimpse into the future with his groundbreaking play, “Rossum's Universal Robots.” Capek chose the word “robot” based on its Old Church Slavonic origin, “rabota” – which basically translates to “slavery.”
Before becoming an established fiction writer, Karel Capek worked as a journalist. And although “Rossum's Universal Robots” was a work of speculative fiction, it serves as an apt prelude to the reality of our increasingly automated tech culture. Like the more recent series of “Terminator” films, R.U.R. depicts robots as future overlords who go to war with human beings. The play emphasizes that the robots were created to serve people, but gradually adopt many of their characteristics and eventually attempt to overtake them. To the extent of imitating human likeness and capability (a subset of biorobotics, which is a field in which life is imitated through technology) this story reflects largely how robots would develop over the next century. (For more on how fiction can predict tech reality, see Astounding Sci-Fi Ideas That Came True (and Some That Didn't).)
Over the course of the industrial revolution, technology developed a rather uneasy relationship with labor. The term “Luddite” is often used to refer to somebody who mistrusts or opposes technology, and is derived from the word for English textile workers who revolted against industrial innovation that left them obsolete during the nineteenth century. This was an early recognition of technology’s potential to disrupt, and perhaps ultimately upend the human workforce.
But human society thrives on efficiency, and automation is implemented where human labor becomes too costly and inefficient to justify. Technology has been a noble servant of people in many respects over the years. And although it is inspired by nature, it ultimately seeks to improve it. Thus, the robots that we’ve designed in our likeness will surpass many of our own human limitations (as many already are). As this evolution unfolds, the idea of the robot will likely become quite abstract, which raises the question of what currently defines robots as physical beings. The following five essential qualities characterize robots as we have come to know them today.
Human intelligence is derived from the elaborate and interconnected network of neurons within the human brain. These neurons form electrical connections with one another, but it remains unclear how exactly they collectively cultivate brain activity like thoughts and reasoning. Nevertheless, innovations in the realms of computation and data mining enable the development of artificially intelligent systems that reflect human intellectual capability.
A robot known as Kismet (developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) decentralizes its computing by separating it into different processing tiers. Higher levels of computing deal with complicated and technically advanced processes, while the lower resources are allocated to the tedious and repetitive activity. Kismet works very similarly to the human nervous system, which consists of both voluntary and involuntary functionality. Artificial intelligence is a very controversial technology, including how its terminology is applied as well as the subjective nature of AI and whether or not it could ever constitute a form of consciousness. (To learn more about AI, see Thinking Machines: The Artificial Intelligence Debate.)
The technology that empowers robot sense has fostered our ability to communicate electronically for many years. Electronic communication mechanisms, such as microphones and cameras, help transmit sensory data to computers within simulated nervous systems. Sense is useful if not fundamental to robots’ interaction with live, natural environments.
The human sensory system is broken down into vision, hearing, touch, smell and taste – all of which have been or are being implemented into robotic technology somehow. Vision and hearing are simulated by transmitting media to databases that compare the information to existing definitions and specifications. When a sound is heard by a robot, for example, the sound is transmitted to a database (or “lexicon”) where it is compared among similar sound waves.
Dexterity refers to the functionality of limbs, appendages and extremities, as well as the general range of motor skill and physical capability of a body. In robotics, dexterity is maximized where there is a balance between sophisticated hardware and high level programming that incorporates environmental sensing capability. Many different organizations are achieving significant milestones in robotic dexterity and physical interactivity.
The United States Department of Defense is host to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which sponsors a great deal of innovation in the development of prosthetic limbs. This technology lends a great deal of insight into the future of robot dexterity, but not all robots imitate the human physical form (those that do are often referred to as “androids,” whose Greek etymological origin basically translates as “likeness to man”). Organizations like Boston Dynamics explore a variety of both bipedal and quadrupedal configurations (with its famous BigDog robot falling in the latter category) while expanding on the idea of extrinsic dexterity in grasping mechanisms.
Robots require an energy source, and there are many factors that go into deciding which form of power provides the most freedom and capability for a robotic body. There are many different ways to generate, transmit and store power. Generators, batteries and fuel cells give power that is locally stored but also temporary, while tethering to a power source naturally limits the device’s freedom and range of functions.
One very notable exception would be a simple machine-based bipedal walking system that relies only on gravity to propel its walk cycle (developed at Japan’s Nagoya Institute of Technology). While this may not qualify as a stand-alone (no pun intended) robot, it could lead to innovations on how robot power could potentially be optimized, or possibly even generated.
Intelligence, sense, dexterity and power all converge to enable independence, which in turn could theoretically lead to a nearly personified individualization of robotic bodies. From its origin within a work of speculative fiction, the word “robot” has almost universally referred to artificially intelligent machinery with a certain degree of humanity to its design and concept (however distant). This automatically imbues robots with a sense of personhood. It also raises many potential questions as to whether or not a machine can ever really “awaken” and become conscious, and by extension treated as an individual subject (or person).