Recent Read: “What is a robot?”

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There is an interesting video/post on wired.com on what does it mean to call something a “robot”? Some highlights:

“I would say that a robot is a physically embodied artificially intelligent agent that can take actions that have effects on the physical world,” says roboticist Anca Dragan of UC Berkeley. According to that definition, a robot has to make decisions that in turn make it useful―that is, avoiding things like running itself into trees. So your dumb, cheapo RC quadcopter is no more a robot than an RC car. An autonomous drone, however, is a thinking agent that senses and interacts with its world. It’s a robot.

Intelligence, then, is a core component of what makes a robot a robot and not a wind-up toy. Kate Darling, a roboticist at the MIT Media Lab, agrees. “My definition of a robot, given that there is no very good universal definition, would probably be a physical machine that’s usually programmable by a computer that can execute tasks autonomously or automatically by itself,” she says. “What a lot of people tend to follow is this sense, think, act paradigm.” An RC drone can act, but only because you order it to. It can’t sense its environment or think about its next action. An autonomous drone, however, can do all three. It’s a physical embodiment of an artificial intelligence.

If a machine is truly autonomous, there’s a good chance it’s a robot—but there are different degrees of autonomous intelligence. It’s easy enough to program a machine to respond to a single environmental input with a single output. But as machine learning algorithms improve, robots will respond to their environments in ways that humans didn’t explicitly teach them to. And that’s the kind of intelligence that will get robots driving us around, helping the elderly, and keeping us company. “I’d say, yes, a robot is a physically embodied artificial intelligent agent,” says Dragan, “but an artificially intelligent agent to me is an agent that acts to maximize a person’s utility.” Meaning, new thinkier robots are more sensitive to the user’s needs.

This nuance is important, because “robot” is a powerful word. It is at once something that makes people uncomfortable (killer robots, job-stealing robots, etc.) and that makes them feel nice (Kuri the extremely endearing companion robot). “The word robot generates a lot of attention and fascination and sometimes fear,” says Darling. “You can use it to get people’s attention. I mean, it’s much sexier to call something a robot than call something a dishwasher.”

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