Most people would think the term ‘robot’ means walking, talking machines that look like metal versions of us. However, any device capable of carrying out tasks with little or no help from people can be called a robot. Most robots used today work behind the scenes carrying out repetitive or complicated jobs that people don’t want to do. Examples include the mechanical arms used for decades in the manufacturing
industry to assemble, weld and paint cars and other products.
But some robots have found their way into the spotlight, playing pivotal roles to improve – and even saving – people’s lives. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York, in 2001, PackBot robots the size of shoeboxes, with tank-like wheels and crane arms, hunted through the rubble of the World Trade Center in search of victims – reaching places people couldn’t. More recently, updated PackBots were the first to enter the Fukushima nuclear plant to help assess the damage after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
In medicine too, robots are also making a mark. Robotic assistance is gaining popularity among some surgeons in complex keyhole procedures. Only small cuts are needed for thin robotic arms and tiny tools to delve into the human body and reach diseased or damaged tissue. These automated devices can be manipulated to then move inside the body using actions that mirror a surgeon’s precision movements outside the body.
There’s no single accepted definition that separates ‘robots’ from ‘machines’. It’s widely accepted, however, that robots have the capability to react and respond to what happens around them. A machine, however, performs a pre-programmed role and behaviors and can’t automatically respond to changes or cues in its environment.