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Introduction to robots and android humanoids


Like nanotechnology, robotics is the use of technology to design and manufacture (intelligent) machines, built for specific purposes, programmed to perform specific tasks.

However, unlike nanomachines, robots are very visible machines, ranging from small, miniature machines, to large crane size constructions with intelligence varying from simple programming to perform mechanical tasks, such as painting a car or lifting cargo, to highly complex reasoning algorithms mimicking human thought. (See also Robot gallery.)

Industry and military robots

Most robots are used in industry today, manufacturing cars, appliances, and serving in places which are hazardous to people, for example nuclear plants and chemical factories. The military has seen a marked increase since 2000 in their use of semi-autonomous robots such as surveillance drones, mine sweepers and deep sea reconnaissance. In these areas robots excel where humans have -severe- difficulty.

Domestic robot helpers

More mundane applications are robot cleaners, such as vacuum cleaners, which are now seeing its appearance in the market place. They are still too expensive, costing between US$3000 and US$5000, but once other manufacturers start selling their own versions and the technology becomes commonplace prices will come down.

A robot vacuum cleaner.
A robot vacuum cleaner

And so there are many uses for robots around the house and garden. However, the idea of a toaster telling you you cannot have your toast because it is not toasted to specifications may not appeal to everyone, so a fully robotic kitchen may not be everyone's dream of convenience, at least not if you have to argue with it every day.


Honda - ASIMO, the humanoid robot.
(c) Honda - ASIMO, a humanoid robot


But that doesn't mean my kitchen oven can't be autonomous in ordering and preparing the food you select, or that the house warms up on cold mornings, draws a bath and makes coffee and breakfast for you while you do your morning exercises or other more important things - like staying in bed another half hour. Robots should be here to serve us.

Agricultural robot helpers

The debate whether to employ robots on farms and orchards is ethical, growers have now reached a point where the security of having labor available to do the picking whenever it is needed has outweighed the insecurity of relying on (il)legal migrant labor.

Some have now invested in the development of robot fruit pickers to ensure picking is done.

Concept robot vine trimmer.
A concept robotic vine trimmer by VisionRobotics

Labor unions protest these developments but farming robots are a logical development in today's uncertain climate of migrant labor and its costs.

(See also Moral and Ethical Issues of Robots and Artificial Intelligence.)

Societal integration


The integration of robots in society is well on its way, however, with many robots already in use. While the mechanical advances of robots is fairly well developed the main focus is now on robot control software - the brain of the robot.

Before robots can be freely integrated in society the infrastructure for them needs to be developed as well. No robot can be fully autonomous without a facility somewhere where it can go to recharge or repair itself.

On a recreational level, robots are fun to build and there are already plenty of kits out there. It's a growing hobby and possibilities are endless, so don't wait for the big industries to come up with all the ideas, make your own robots.


The popular Robot Wars are another sample of hobby robots built for a single use.

Especially in the Star Wars series are robots (droids) prevalent and fully integrated in all levels of society - as scientists, mechanics, waiters, guards and soldiers, servants and so on.

It will be a long time before robots will be as much part of our society as it is in the Star Wars universe but the usefulness of robots in various situations is becoming clearer and more pronounced. As they prove their usefulness to us by doing work humans refuse or find too hazardous, acceptance of robots in society will also broaden.


Popular robots


On television and in the movies there have been a number of robots which have become widely known to a large audience.

We name but a few here, such as the robot in the in the 1960's series "Lost in space", Commander "Data" in the "Star Trek: New generation" series, and R2D2 and C3PO in the Hollywood productions of "Star Wars".

Robots and androids on television and in films

B9 - Will Robinson's best friend and protector in Lost in Space. "Danger, Will Robinson!" B9 - The robot from the popular 1960's television series "Lost in space" (c) CBS.

Lt. Comm. Data - Star Trek: the Next Generation.
Lt. Data of Star Trek fame. The android that wants to be human. (c)

C3PO - Star Wars Protocol Droid.
C3PO - a protocol droid for interaction between humans and droids. (c) Droid Archive

R2D2 - the robot mechanic from Star Wars with a mind of its own.
R2D2 - an astromech droid.
(c) Droid Archive

Dalek - the villainous robots from Dr. Who.The Daleks, robot villains in the immensely popular Dr. Who television series. (c) BBC.

Westworld robots go berserk.
Yul Brynner as the robot gone berserk in the film "Westworld" (c) TCM

"Sonny", the NS5 robot of Asimov's "I, Robot".
"Sonny", the NS5 series robot with feelings from the movie "I, Robot" of the book by Isaac Asimov. (c) Fox.


The early robot popularity reached a peak in the 1950's and early 1960's American movies with robots landing from outer space to invade the Earth or to do the opposite - make friendly contact. Other robots accompanied humans to Mars and other planets in series and films.


Comic strips featured robots as good-natured and extremely handy companions to have on your side when fighting evil as well as evil robots built by mad scientists bent on destroying cities or the world.

Archie - from the hero robot comic book series.
"Archie" the heroic robot
in the 1950's popular
comic book series. (c) ...

Science fiction writers, most notably Isaac Asimov, made robots a specialty, incorporating them into many of his stories, even accrediting them with the future destiny of mankind as a whole in his "Foundation" series. Isaac Asimov also wrote the three laws of robotics which are to prevent humanoid robots from turning on their masters. (See also Android Robots.)

As such the robot has "enjoyed" a reasonably high profile to the general audience with few people in the West not being familiar with this man-made machine.

The fact that we are now entering an age where these robots are becoming a reality makes many of us question the direction robot technology should take.

Whether in books, the movies or in television series, robots have either been portrayed as beneficial to humans or enemies of. As such they are obviously built in the image of their creators, showing much of the same characteristics. Cause to worry? Perhaps. 

(See also Moral and Ethical Issues of Artificial Intelligence and Robot Newsgroups.)



Robots in manufacturing

Many robots have been built for manufacturing purposes and can be found in factories around the world.

Japan and the United States lead the world in the development of these robots, generally called industrial robots.

Robots in manufacturing can be divided into three categories, namely 1) material handling, 2) processing operations, and 3) assembly and inspection.

Material handling robots are usually employed in the transport of goods, parts or cargo from one destination to another, most often within the same factory or plant. Automated warehouses are an example of this.

In processing operations robots generally perform a specific task such as spot welding or spray painting. These robots are outfitted with a specialized tool to perform the programmed task.

Assembly line robots are similar to process automatons in that they usually perform a single task in the assembly line process.

Inspection robots are widely used to examine a finished part or product for defects or irregularities, for example, utilizing any number of tools, such as lenses and scanners.


There is some debate whether some of these industrial robots can be called robots. Many are little or no more than machines built to perform a task, such as humanity has been building them for thousands of years and calling them robots is stretching the concept too far.

A common denominator in manufacturing robots is that they perform monotonous or repetitive and often dangerous work involving heavy machinery, industrial pollutants, poisonous chemicals or other hazardous materials.

So, yes, they have taken away jobs of human workers. However, one needs to consider the effects of (heavy) monotonous, repetitive or hazardous work that is done year after year on the human body and mind. In this light, by all means, let machines do the work. (See also Moral and Ethical Issues of Robots and Artificial Intelligence.)

Example of industrial robot used for spot welding.
(c) Nachi-Fujikoshi


Robot explorers

One area where robots are beginning to excel in, and which causes less controversial debate on their usefulness, is as explorers. The only real debate here is their cost.

With China poised to join the elite club of sending humans into space, it is robots that have paved the way so far. (See also Robots in Space.)

Robot space explorers

The number of nations that are now involved in robotic space exploration is steadily growing, with the NASA (USA) and the ESA (EU) organizations taking the lead so far.

For the future of humankind it seems essential that we get off this rock with its limited resources and room to grow and into that final frontier - our universe at large, starting with our own solar system.

Earth is not the only planetary body in our solar system. There are nine planets, dozens of moons, countless asteroids and other bodies out there, many of which contain material that we need to feed our growing civilization.

With our own moon and Mars as the nearest planetary bodies being first in line for serious exploration - or exploitation - we need to establish whether these worlds contain life before we contaminate it with Earth life. So far the answer is "No" but this may differ on other worlds we explore.

Robots with scientific payloads are eminently suited for this task as the cost and problems involved for sending out humans at this stage is not only prohibitive but also somewhat irresponsible. (Not that that ever stopped us before...) There is plenty of time for humans to take to space once robot explorers have set up bases or sent back information (see also Space exploration).

Meanwhile a number of robots have been sent out as explorers, with many more on the drawing boards. (See Robots in Space.)

Earth explorers

While shooting robot explorers into space is a highly satisfying and lucrative pastime for many professionals and their companies around the globe, other robots are designed to explore areas on or inside our globe.

There are many areas of our Earth that need further exploration. The oceans being a prime example. Here, as in space, the environment is hostile to humans and machines would be better suited to do the exploring.


Our atmosphere, which protects us from harmful radiation as well as keeps us alive, needs better monitoring, and our ecosystems, which are disappearing at an alarming rate need careful checking.

And then we have still only scratched the surface of our planet. We know very little what goes on deep inside it.

In all these areas robots can help us to explore and monitor developments, provide statistical information on a wide range of issues and warn us of impending trouble.

As such robots are set to become an integral part of our global control system (see also Cybernetics) which in turn should give us a better idea of the complete and highly complex system we are a part of, how we affect it and how it affects us.


Autonomous robot explorers

Military reconnaissance flying robots aka Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV)
Military reconnaissance flying robots aka Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) are now widely used. (c) U.S. Navy.

The UAV CyberScout.
The UAV CyberScout is loaded with sensor equipment such as cameras for remote reconnaissance missions.
(c) SpaceDaily.

And there are also the military robots, such as mine clearers and the flying drones, used in surveillance and targeting.


Nano robots


Moving right along from the outer to the inner universe, the smallest robots of all, nanobots, will be exploring the human body, as well as other organisms, repairing and correcting, providing information on how we work on the inside.

Already this field of technology - nanotechnology - is expanding rapidly. Although there are no nanobots as yet, there have been advances in manufacturing nanoparts, such as engines. Nanotechnology is also used in various industrial and medical applications. (See our Nanotechnology section for more.)

So for those of us who think that robots are still only science fiction, think again. We are already living in our future and robots are increasingly becoming a daily aspect of this current future.


Nanobots repairing and maintaining red blood cells.

An example of how nanotechnology robots might interact with our bodies in the future, repairing and maintaining red blood cells.
(c) BBC UK.



Robot definitions

Function: noun Date: 1923
Etymology: Czech, from robota compulsory labor; akin to Old High German arabeit trouble, Latin orbus orphaned -- more at
1 a : a machine that looks like a human being and performs various complex acts (as walking or talking) of a human being; also : a similar but fictional machine whose lack of capacity for human emotions is often emphasized b : an efficient insensitive person who functions automatically
2 : a device that automatically performs complicated often repetitive tasks
3 : a mechanism guided by automatic controls
Source: Merriam Webster  




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