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    Exploratory Workshop on the Social Impacts of Robot/es

Definition of Robots

It is difficult to establish a usable, general- ly agreed on definition of a robot. Experts use different approaches to defining the term. The problem of definition is further compounded for the public by images shaped by science fiction movies that bear no resem- blance to robots currently on the market.

At the same time, it is important to have some common understanding of the term in order to define the state of the art, to project future capabilities, and to compare efforts between countries. Depending on the defini- tion used, for example, estimates of the num- ber of robots installed in Japan vary from 3,000 to over 47,000 (5). This variation stems in part from the difficulty of distinguishing simple robots from the closely related “hard automation”* technologies for transferring material.

The Robot Institute of America, a trade association of robot manufacturers and users, defines robots as follows:

A robot is a reprogramable multifunctional manipulator designed to move material, parts, tools, or specialized devices, through

*The term "hard automation” refers to traditional custom

engineered automated lines. Although they may contain some standard components, they are built to accomplish one specific set of tasks and often must be completely torn down and rebuilt when the manufacturing process or product design changes.

variable programed motions for the perform- ance of a variety of tasks.

This definition seems to describe the current state of the technology and is generally ac- cepted by U.S. industry.

Industrial robots have three principal com- ponents:

  • 1.

    one or more arms, usually situated on a fixed base, that can move in several directions;

  • 2.

    a manipulator, the business end of the robot, is the “hand” that holds the tool or the part to be worked; and

  • 3.

    a controller that gives detailed move- ment instructions.

Computer scientists add to this list a few capabilities that are not generally commer- cially available today, but that might be part of a general purpose robot of the future (6). They include the following:

  • 4.

    locomotion some means of moving around in a specified environment;

  • 5.

    perception, the ability to sense by sight, touch, or some other means, its environ- ment, and to understand it in terms of a task—e.g., the ability to recognize an obstruction or find a designated object in an arbitrary location; and

  • 6.

    heuristic problem-solving, the ability to plan and direct its actions to achieve higher order goals.

Technological Context of Robots

The principal technological context of ro- botics is the field of industrial automation. Most experts on industrial automation state that robots are only one component of a large collection of related devices and tech- niques that form the technological base of in- dustrial automation (7). This view was ex- pressed both at the workshop and in discus- sions of experts with OTA staff. Mechanical

devices that performed tasks similar to those done by modern industrial robots have existed for centuries. The principal dif- ference is that, whereas so-called “hard automation” is custom designed to a par- ticular task, robots are standardized, but flexible and programmable units that can be installed in different environments with much less customization. (Some adaptation

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