As I was walking back to my car from parking the float I had been driving at the Labor Day parade, I happened across an R2 Unit that had been on the side of the parade route. And I got to talk to its owners/builders. Turns out they were visiting from Mountain States Droid Builders, a fan club that builds robot replicas from the Star Wars universe. They were happy to demonstrate the way they built their ‘droid and invited me to join them at their work parties. We discussed that this R2 unit was technically more of an RC vehicle than a proper robot but that they had plans for adding robot-skills to their device as time and money became available.
This led me to ponder, yet again, how to define the difference between the machines we’ve been talking about. I see there being 5 or 6 kinds of machines at the moment; RCs and Drones, autonomous vehicles, human-assisted, industrial and other kinds of robots, and ‘Droids.
RC vehicles and drones are machines which are piloted by humans who are remote from the machine itself. The humans rely on information from sensors or visual observation of the craft itself. The craft may have components which aid the human in various tasks much like cruise-control and auto-pilot do today.
Autonomous vehicles would be able to control their own actions, using sensors and other inputs to navigate safely from point-to-point. These vehicles may coordinate with external sources such as road- or other vehicle-feedback
Hybrid vehicles (I suppose we need a new word for this since Hybrid already means multiple fuel sources) would be semi-autonomous and able to make some decisions on its own but would require a human in the loop to control the vehicle in certain situations, perhaps mandated by law, or when the computer can’t make a valid decision. Above I referred to these as “human-assisted.”
Industrial robots can repeat a set of tasks that it has been “trained” to do and adding sensors to it allows the machine to receive feedback on its actions and make corrections. The robot knowing that the part that it should be working on is misaligned can cause the robot to re-align the part or ask for help instead of completing a task which is not going to be correct at the end.
Robots are considered semi-autonomous at this point, depending on their decision-making skills.
Then there are Droids. All science fiction robots fit into this category, at least initially. Short for Android, these machines seem to have personalities and are able to perform their tasks with no supervision.
So here are my questions. Are these enough categories? Where does a typical Roomba fit into all of this? How about the current set of vehicles which can park themselves or brake to avoid accidents? What about a machine that can assist rescuers in a unsafe environment? How solid should the lines be between the categories? If the machine can be over-ridden by a human, does that mean it’s human-assisted? I don’t know the answer to this question either but I’m starting to research it because we need a better vocabulary to talk about these machines.