Robot definitions

By Cathrine Hasse, Stine Trentmøller, & Jessica Sorenson

In order to understand how a robot is defined - by roboticists, by social scientists, and by the general public – we gathered definitions from academic literature, from legal documents, from robotics and engineering organizations, and from our fieldwork observations.

Robots are notoriously hard to define, both due to rapid changes in their material components and to conceptual diversities over time and across disciplines. Our understanding of the robot is therefore bound to change with our ongoing research. Thus, we do not present a stable definition of a robot, but we explain how a particular robot can be understood from its physical composition and within its social, cultural, and political setting.

The dual history of the robot

The robot’s history is drawn along two lines, as machine labor and as mechanical entertainment. The field of robotics was born from machine automation, which developed from first complex machine labor, such as the Spinning Jenny, to the first programmable machines, like the Unimate. These early devices were designed to substitute or supplement human function and are the predecessors of today’s industrial robots.

Meanwhile, the popular notion of the robot developed from early automata (clockwork machines designed to awe) and from literature and other media, such as Capek’s R.U.R. and Tezuka’s Astro Boy. These real and fictive machines were explorations of what it means to be human, mirroring human forms and functions. Humanoid robots and certain service robots might be said to follow from this tradition.

The robot as both materiality and concept

Modern understandings of the robot are now caught at the confluence of imagination and machination, as machine and AI capabilities are beginning to catch up with the robots of fiction. Technical literature maintains a focus on the robot as a tool, an amalgamation of software and hardware components. In the social sciences, the robot is defined by human understandings, drawn from historical fantasy, cultural imaginaries, media representations, political definitions, and situated practices. In REELER, we try to merge these definitions to understand the robot as both conceptual and material.