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Which one is a robot?

Which of these are real robots?

In front of you are these objects: an earthworm, R2D2, a player piano, an unmanned submarine, an animatronic dog, a radio control car, a space probe, a microwave oven, and Stanley, Stanford University’s self driving car. All but one are robots by one definition or another.

Did you guess it? It’s George Lucas’ famously cute robot from Star Wars, which was actually a small actor inside the ‘costume’. Of course, if we look at R2D2 within the context of the movie, it is a robot and the most advanced of the bunch.

The strictest definition of Robot is a << thing which makes decisions about what to do based on a self-contained process, i.e. a ‘program’>> Usually they have a way of sensing the environment to assist their decision making. These ‘bots are called “autonomous”. In practice, we usually restrict ourselves to devices of human construction, which excludes critters like the earthworm and baby sisters from a practical definition, But the player piano, animatronic dog, microwave oven and Stanley all fit these criteria. The largest single group of robots today are precision machines in factories and completely autonomous.

Other robots are strictly controlled by humans live and in real time. This include the submersible, bomb disposal robots and Battlebots, as well as radio controlled airplanes and RC toy cars.

Many robots today are controlled remotely but have autonomous behaviors also. The more sophisticated military bots: like the Predator, which does reconnaissance and weapons delivery, are remotely controlled but have to make quick decisions in real time and so are remote/autonomous hybrids.

The Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity (my favorite bots in all the world), make very complex decisions on their own while being controlled from Earth. They need on-board intelligence because control signals can take over 15 minutes to travel from here to Mars and the return signal the same time. That means we can drive it off a cliff but won’t know that for half an hour!

And what kind of robots are the BotBrain bots your students might build? Autonomous. Completely. And very fun!


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Robert Contaldi