Robot Taxonomy

Having been playing with various electronic gadget designs that might or might not be considered “robots,” and recently thinking about buying a Roomba, I was wondering what my own working definition of a robot actually is. Here’s what I came up with while washing the dishes.

A robot is:

A synthetic object that performs some function with some degree of autonomy.

Synthetic: Man-made, purpose-built. Probably doesn’t contain biological components; you could make a case for that, but I think the better term there is ‘cyborg.’ Being made by other robots is OK.

Functional: May include the function of aesthetics, entertainment, or emotional effect as well as traditional task accomplishment.

Autonomous: This is a vague and relative term. I think that’s OK; one generation’s intelligent robot may be the next generation’s dumb machine. Some clarification is needed, but I’ll use subclasses of the general category of robots, as follows:

  • Class 3: Autonomous in some well-defined complex task, usually involvung some degree of response to environmental stimuli. Ex.: bread machine, dishwasher, clothes washer, assembly-line pick-and-place machines, and my FarmBots and, perhaps, PrayBot.

  • Class 2: Above plus internally-directed locomotion. Ex.: Roomba, the concept of a telepresence avatar, perhaps Solarollers. (Does the assembly line worker count here? It’s stationary overall, but parts of it do move around to get and place pieces.)

  • Class 1: Above plus some non-trivial degree of anthropomorphism or companion function. Interaction is possible, and some degree of surprising behavior. Ex.: Asimo, Aibo, Robosapien.

That’s where I’m at, anyway. I think it’s useful to consider the members of Class 3 as relatives of the other classes, though obviously in the popular mind Class 1 is the canonical ‘robot’ of science fiction, and Class 2 is what is commonly called a robot in the commercial world.