When we hear the word “robot,” many of us picture human-like machines made of metal. Although there’s some debate on what characteristics define a robot, most scientists agree that a robot is a machine able to automatically perform a task or series of tasks based on its programming and its environment.
The idea of the robot isn’t new. Ancient Greek, Chinese, Egyptian, and Roman engineers all documented their efforts to build artificial humans and animals. However, the word “robot,” derived from a term meaning “forced labor,” wasn’t first used until 1921, in a play that told the story of human-like robots, or “androids.”
Although modern robots have many different and diverse functions, most share a few common characteristics. A robot usually:
– Is powered by some source of electricity
– Is programmed by humans to perform a specific set of tasks, and
– Has the ability to respond to its environment.
This last point distinguishes robots from ordinary machines. For example, a motion detector is defined as a robot because it can automatically switch on a light when it senses a person walking by. An ordinary computer is not a robot, because it depends on humans to tell it what to do, and can’t sense and respond to the world around it.
Although androids are still mostly science fiction, we use other kinds of robots every day, usually to help with tasks too dangerous or too repetitive for humans. We send robots into space to land on distant planets, and use them to sweep floors in our homes. Robots assist doctors in surgery, build cars on assembly lines, work in mineral mines, and even teach students. Only time will tell how the future of robotics will benefit mankind next.