Are they really robots?


I’m not sure exactly where I was going either. This was similar to a line of questioning posed to me today and I just wanted to get some opinions and responses from the CD community as I don’t think I was able to express my thoughts on the matter very well.

In general, I agree with many of the sentiments expressed in this thread. Whether they are robots or robotic systems is irrelevant. We are not trying to provide the end-all-be-all of robotics education, FIRST is merely a launching point for those interested in pursuing careers in robotics, science or technology. Students can then add to their knowledge through college and potentially other competitions that may be more “pure” robots.

Thanks for the input guys, I appreciate it.

I took a look at the website of a maker of military and police/bomb disposal robots today after I made my earlier post. If “robot” is defined as it was above, that manufacturer would be guilty of false advertising.

I think what has really happened is that the definition of robot has expanded (again–after all, it used to be only used for human-resembling mechanical creations) and the robotics industry as a group has been slow to recognize that fact (with the exception of some manufacturers who push the new definition). Dictionaries are even slower to recognize the change officially.

I think the best term if you want to be totally correct is “semi-autonomous robot”. It’s a robot, but it relies on operator interface.

I think it is a matter if perspective. All robots require output, analysis and input to perform it’s functions. Some use an integral computer or computers and are hard wired into the device. Some use a Bio-chemical-electronic computer (our brain)and are connected by radio waves. To my mind, same net result, though it may be much harder to control via the later in some aspects.

Short answer: They’re robots.

Long answer: Even if some machines used in the FIRST Robotics Competition are not true robots, the vast majority employ enough of the characteristics of a what a reasonable person would consider a “robot” that as a group they are collectively referred to as robots.

P.S. Don’t listen to dictionaries for definitions of technical subjects. Technology moves faster than their editorial committee can vote on new word definitions. For example, look up agile or waterfall in a dictionary. You’ll see nothing remotely related to software engineering.

Here is an easy way to defuse the situation. Agree with the questioner.

Answer “No - They aren’t robots in many traditional senses of the word. However, we really don’t care. That aspect of what we do is not central to the outcome of the program. Saying that we build machines instead of saying that we build robots would not be an important change. Now, lets talk about something important…”

FMC? (FIRST Machinery Competition)


I was waiting for someone to say something like that! :slight_smile:

From the movie I, Robot:

Detective Spooner: Human beings have dreams. Even dogs have dreams, but not you; you are just a machine, an imitation of life. Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?

Robot: Can You?

Do not share this with that someone in the robotics industry. He may begin to wonder wheather he is really human. :rolleyes:

According to a display I saw at the Indiana State Fair two months ago, robots have four distinct components:

  1. Sensors
  2. Controller/Program
  3. Kinematics/Mechanisms
  4. Actuators/Motors

FRC, FTC, FLL, and VRC have these (I presume BEST and NURC and BattleBots and BunnyBots and the litany of other competitions do too, but I’ve never personally seen them).

A generally accepted definition of a robot is a machine that reacts to its environment through the use of sensors, actuators, mechanisms, and programmed control. For all the aforementioned competitions - Check.

As for the teleop/autonomous argument, I see no difference between those. Does it really matter if the sensor used by the robot is a potentiometer, ultrasonic device, or joystick? They’re all inputs, are they not? There’s no direct causation between pushing a joystick forward and the robot moving in a forward direction. The program still has to interpret input data and react accordingly.

To a robot, a human is as much its environment as a soccer ball, vision target, or diamondplate wall, so to force such a distinction simply for the sake of definition would be unnecessary.

Are they robots? Sure. Does it matter if they’re not? Other than semantics, not really.

For our next exercise, we should define Beauty and Truth. :slight_smile:

Autonomy is not the only discriminator on whether or not something is a robot.

My washer and dryer use a variety of sensors and pre-programmed instructions to wet my clothes, dispense detergent, rinse them, and dry them automatically until they have reached a certain level of dryness. Yet they are not called robots.

At the same time, EOD (explosive ordinance disposal, ie. bomb defusing) robots are (currently) almost always teleoperated, yet the military, industry, and academia call them robots far more often than not.

As it turns out, it is easy to come up with counter examples to any cut-and-dry “is it or isn’t it a robot” rule. The higher the levels of physical agency (mobility and manipulation within/of the environment), mental agency (automatic controls, feedback, and reactive behaviors), and anthropomorphism or zoomorphism (the more they physically or functionally resemble a living organism), the more likely something is to be agreed upon as a robot, but it’s hard to unambiguously draw the separators.

I recommend that people read the following two Wikipedia pages, which have excellent discussions on the topic:

My personal opinion is that a large number of FIRST robots have enough (a) physical agency to manipulate and maneuver through an environment, (b) mental agency via autonomous mode and sensor-guided control (via onboard or offboard - ex. joystick - sensors), and © functional resemblance to a human or animal - e.g. a soccer or basketball player - to be considered “robots” and not just “machines” or “systems” (an even more ambiguous term).

^ Yeah, what Jared said. It seems pretty interesting to me that wherever you visit or whomever you speak with in the vastly diverse world of the “robotics industry” you find very intelligent, invested people who tend to call their own gizmos “robots” and other people’s robots “gizmos.” (please go find George Carlin’s bit about “stuff” on the internet if you don’t know what I mean :))

I remember being in a similar, and equally amusing, conversation about what “music” is when Rap was becoming more prevalent in the mainstream about 18 years ago.

It would seem to me the conversation here is more about preconceived notions and the widely held misconception that anyone, with their limited viewpoint, no matter how awesome he/she is, can fully define a rapidly evolving “industry” such as this one.

…and if this is REALLY, “…being harmful and preying on the ignorance of the average high school student,” someone please explain Tina Haskins’ success story (and the growing number of so many FIRST alumni who are doing incredible things in the industry today) to me.

I remember being in 3rd grade and talking to my parents about the definition of a robot. What we came up with has agreed with just about everyone I’ve talked to about it:

A robot is a machine that is controlled through a programmable computer, that is capable of autonomous or pre-programmed behavior, but it can also be “tele-operated” (to borrow a FIRST term).

I would argue that FRC does build robots, even if they are not fully-autonomous, machine-learning, bajillion-integrated-sensor robots that require tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to build and years of development to fine-tune.

We teach high school students to build Cyborgs.

“self-regulating human-machine systems” - 1960 Clynes & Kline.

Our human-machine entities are joined at the joystick…

I always thought robots were reprogrammable machines… But TBH, the ones we make seem like just complex RC machines

In the WPI Robotics Engineering Department, the general (read: boiled down) definition of the robot is a machine that can sense the world, make “decisions”, and act upon the world.

IMHO FIRST robots are true robots in that sense during the :15 of autonomous. However, many robots continue to use sensors throughout teleoperated. So, while they’re not entirely autonomous, they’re still performing autonomous tasks throughout the entire match and are thus robots.

So if it’s controlled by a computer that’s not programmable, it’s not a robot?


Reminds me of the arguments I used to hear about “What is art?”

I came up with my own personal definition, which has served me quite well over the years: (scroll down)

If I can do it, it’s not art.


It may be easy to look at this from another point of view for people who thinks that FIRST Robots are just machines during teleoperated mode and not robot. Is it just an expensive remote controlled vehicle?

What is the definition of a remote control car? My definition and the common definition is that a remote control car will do exactly what you tell it to do. If you move a joystick, it will move. It will never disobey you unless the battery runs out. I would argue that a FIRST robot with sensors is not a remote control vehicle. It is because even in teleoperated mode, it may behave differently than what your joystick says. It just takes your input as a suggestion and together with other input, makes a decision what to do. It does that to protect itself from damage, to stay within the envelop/rules or for whatever reasons that it was programmed to do. You may think that you are remotely controlling the robot but you are not. Since it exhibits artificial intelligence, it should be classified as a robot.

On the other hand, a FIRST Robot that does not use sensors during teleoperated mode is a remote control vehicle.

Hmmm…I wonder if the joystick is a sensor?


Sounds like humans are robots.

  1. Sensors – Eyes, nose, etc
  2. Controller/program – Brain/teachings
  3. Kinematics/Mechanisms – Arms,Legs,etc
  4. Actuators/Motors – Muscles

I think I’m going to bring that one up with my biology teacher… we’re discussing the definition of life. I think as technology progresses, definitions might have to change. :rolleyes: