What is a robot? The answer is constantly evolving

Most people would say that a Roomba is a robot. But what about a Nest thermostat? Or an ATM or GPS?
People tend to think of robots in the image of C3PO or Rosie–humanoids that perform a range of tasks while peppering their humans’ lives with wit and humor. It’s easy to consider a Roomba as a robot because it moves and cleans autonomously. It’s not too hard to think of it as a pet.
But a Nest thermostat is not really any different. It manipulates the environment. And while a Roomba can’t learn, a Nest does; it tracks your patterns and incorporates them into when it heats or cools a room. It performs the same task as C3PO walking over to a thermostat and manually turning its dial.

The Roomba 800 series. Photo by Signe Brewster.

The Roomba 800 series. Photo by Signe Brewster.

So what is a robot?

“Our cars and planes are robots and capable of a lot of autonomy,” Andra Keay, founder of Robot Launchpad and managing director of Silicon Valley Robotics, told me in an interview. “But we don’t see them that way. (They are) an environment; too large for us to look at as an item. Good robotics is invisible. It becomes an appliance. After vacuuming floor, mowing lawn, it’s done. It becomes invisible.”

Photo courtesy of Andra Keay

Photo courtesy of Andra Keay

Keay moved to the United States in 2011 from Australia, where she studied robot behavior. She had heard that it was difficult for robotics startups to get funding and wondered how that could be true, given the transformative effect they are expected to have on the future.
That question led her to Silicon Valley, where she discovered money is indeed going to robots; they’re just not the robots you were looking for.
“It can happen in architecture classes, garages, aeronautic labs or car companies,” Keay said. “What we call a robot today is more sophisticated than what we called a robot in the ’80s. It has always been an identity issue.”
Photo courtesy of Dmitry Grishin

Photo courtesy of Dmitry Grishin

When a robot falls into a specific task, it has the tendency to fall into the background and no longer be called a robot, said venture capitalist Dmitry Grishin. Dishwashers and ATMs have simply become machines, as have smart thermostats and sprinklers.
“People always think about a humanoid robot, but I think it’s the wrong approach,” Grishin said. “People usually call something robot, but they don’t know what it’s doing. Once the robot starts to solve some particular task, they stop calling it a robot. They call it vacuum cleaner, they call it machine or car.”

The future of the robot

Grishin believes that niche robots will slowly converge into one product, just as calculators, compasses and communication have all been absorbed into our mobile devices.

Unbounded Robotics' UBR-1 robot. Photo courtesy of Unbounded Robotics.

Unbounded Robotics’ UBR-1 robot. Photo courtesy of Unbounded Robotics.

The technology isn’t quite there yet to provide that all-in-one robot, though companies like Unbounded RoboticsKeecker and Knightscope are taking cracks at what might be the first generation.
But it’s also a business move. Robots need a clear use to justify their cost, Grishin said. It’s better for them to do one task really well than to put out a generalist that does many things poorly.
“You need robots that solve the task and answer the question, ‘What is it doing?'” Grishin said.

So when will we actually call the robots we own “robots?” Keay said the key is a relationship.

“We will only call it a robot if we are engaging in a social relationship with it,” Keay said. “There is space for something to become the face of the invisible robotic functions surrounding us — like a robot butler.”