From automated to autonomous, will the real robots please stand up?


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If I tell you that I saw a robot today, what comes to mind? What is a robot?

This is not a trick question.

Robots in science fiction

Because we’ve seen so many robots. We’ve seen Robbie the Robot from the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet, Rosie the housekeeper from The Jetsons, the animated Gigantor, C-3PO and R2-D2 from late 1970s Star Wars, Optimus Prime, Data from Star Trek, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 Terminator, or later robots like Wall-E, Dolores (and all the synths) from Westworld, and all the rest of the robots in the various Star Wars spin-offs.

All of these, together, have built up our view of robots over the years, at least in movies and TV.

We’re also familiar with the stories these robots tell. Data from Star Trek just wants to be more human. Isaac from The Orville is a Kaylon, a race of robots that destroy organic creatures. (Yet Isaac’s path has been one of redemption, for he’s a compassionate Kaylon and helps turn the tide for organics.) The Star Wars robots, especially those designed for merchandising, have become friends and companions to their organic buddies.

Then there are the many evil robots bent on destruction, like Ultron; Hal 9000; the Daleks and the Cybermen from Doctor Who; various incarnations of Terminator robots; Nomad, Lore, Peanut Hamper, and Control from Star Trek; and a collection of droids from Star Wars.

These robots have all provided writers with the opportunity to reflect humanity’s traits and problems back on mechanical beings and to play with what happens when you create artificial life with or without the moral constraints that govern most humans.

Also: The Star Wars starter guide: Every movie ranked and graded

Robots in the real world

But robots exist in the real world. And they don’t behave like C-3PO or Mr. Data. Instead, they range from giant automated factories to automobile welding robots, from  3D printers to toys for kids. What makes these robots…robots? And what makes them different from the robots of science fiction?

Foe starters, the robots of science fiction are often fully autonomous. Mr. Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Doctor from Star Trek Voyager (a holographic AI) were even declared to be legal people in the eyes of the fictional Federation. Nobody is claiming that my friend’s Tesla is legally a person.

Also: The best robots and AI innovations at CES

In fact,…