The IT Law Wiki
I can't define a robot, but I know one when I see one.
J. Engelberger, Robotics in Service (1989).


A robot (from Czech robota meaning "forced labor") is

a general-purpose system, with a great degree of autonomy, through which a computer senses its environment, plans and decides its actions, and performs mechanical manipulations and data handling, sometimes doing tasks normally done by humans. A robot may act under the direct control of a human (for example, a UAV) or autonomously under the control of a pre-programmed computer.
[an] actuated mechanism programmable in two or more axes with a degree of autonomy, moving within its environment, to perform intended tasks.[1]
[a] manipulation mechanism, which may be of the continuous path or of the point-to-point variety, may use sensors, and has all the following characteristics:
(a) Is multifunctional;
(b) Is capable of positioning or orienting material, parts, tools or special devices through variable movements in a three dimensional space;
(c) Incorporates three or more closed or open loop servo-devices that may include stepping motors; and
(d) Has user-accessible programmability by means of teach/playback method or by means of an electronic computer that may be a programmable logic controller, i.e., without mechanical intervention.[2]
[a m]achine which, through remote-control or based on pre-programmed patterns, can carry out tasks of a certain complexity with various degrees of autonomy from human supervision.[3]
[a] powered machine that (1) senses, (2) thinks (in a deliberative, non-mechanical sense), and (3) acts.[4]


While there is no consensus definition of 'robot,' many find it useful to refer to the sense-think-act paradigm to delineate rrobotics from previous or constituent technologies. Thus, a laptop with a camera senses and processes ('thinks') but does not 'act.' Whereas a remote control car with a camera acts and senses but does not process. Robots represent technology that senses the world, processes and integrates what it senses, and then acts upon the world in some way. Of course, each of these factors exists on a spectrum.[5]

"According to the most widespread understanding, a robot is an autonomous machine able to perform human actions. Three complementary attributes emerge from such a definition of robot: They concern: 1) physical nature: it is believed that a robot is unique since it can displace itself in the environment and carry out actions in the physical world. Such a distinctive capability is based on the assumption that a robot must possess a physical body. Indeed, robots are usually referred to as machines; 2) autonomy: in robotics it means the capability of carrying out an action on its own, namely, without human intervention. Autonomy is usually assumed to be a key factor in qualifying a thing as a "robot" or as "robotic". In fact, in almost all dictionaries definitions, including authoritative sources such as the International Standard Organisation (ISO 13482), there is always a reference to autonomy. Finally, 3) human likeness: the similarity to human beings."[6]

Taxonomy of robotics[]

The RoboLaw project devised a taxonomy of robotics, which, by classifying the main features of robots, allowed us to make sense of the plurality of uses and applications. The taxonomy consists of six categories or classes, which have been identified by taking into account the most recurring features appearing in definitions of robots:

1) Use or task. It refers to the specific purpose or application for which the robot is designed. Indeed, the etymology of the word (from Czech robota, meaning “forced labour”) implies that robots are meant to carry out a job or service. Potentially robots can be used for "any application that can be thought of." Conventionally, applications are divided into two macro categories: service and industrial applications.
2) The environment is the outside of the robot, the space where the robot will carry out its actions. Within this category it is possible to make a macro distinction between physical and non-physical environments. In this way, it is possible to bring together robots that operate on space, air, land, water and the human body (or other biological environments) and those working in cyberspace, such as softbot.
3) Nature refers to the way in which a robot manifests itself or exists. Within this category it is possible to distinguish between two main sub-categories determined by the type of embodiment: embodied and disembodied robots. Machines, hybrid bionic systems and biological robots belong to the former sub-class, while software or virtual agents belongs to the latter. In this way, it was possible to avoid discriminating robots by the material they are made of, and therefore enlarge the definition to comprehend software agents (also know as virtual robots or softbots), artificial biological robots, such as nanorobots and finally, hybrid-bionic systems, which are made of biological and mechatronic components (e.g. limb prosthesis).
4) Human-robot interaction (HRI). This category takes into account the relationship between robots and human beings. It is a varied category including modes of interaction, interfaces, roles, and proximity between humans and robots.
5) Autonomy specifies a robot degree of independence from an outside human supervisor in the execution of a task in a natural environment (i.e. out of a laboratory). Within this category different levels of autonomy can be included: full autonomy, semi-autonomy and tele-operation. In this way it was possible to consider as robots both autonomous vehicles, such as the Google car and the da Vinci, a tele-operated system used for robotic assisted surgery.

Enabling building blocks[]

Mobile robots and unmanned systems comprise several subsystems. All these separate systems and their components must work together to enable the robot to function properly. The technologies involved in these systems will all require advances if robots are to see extensive use in personal home and security applications.

  • Hardware technologies. Affordable robots will continue to be built using fairly conventional hardware, off-the-shelf electronic components, batteries, motors, sensors, and actuators. The availability of cost-effective hardware is extremely important.
  • Practical robot software platforms. Robot software platforms are already available (e.g. Evolution Robotics). These systems can provide a cost-effective way of producing and operating home security robots, and will continue to increase in functionality.
  • Robot cognition and artificial intelligence. The development of robots with cognitive abilities. Advances in artificial intelligence and associated technologies are vital for the development of intelligent, autonomous robots for domestic applications.


  1. ISO Standard 8373.
  2. U.S. Export Administration Regulations, Part 772 (15 C.F.R. §772.1).
  3. Study on the Human Rights Implications of the Usage of Drones and Unmanned Robots in Warfare, at 6.
  4. [[Patrick Lin, George Bekey & Keith Abney. Autonomous Military Robotics: Risk, Ethics, and Design (Dec. 20, 2008) (full-text).
  5. RThe Case for a Federal Robotics Commission, at n.3.
  6. Guidelines on Regulating Robotics, at 15 (footnotes omitted).


See also[]