What Is a Robot?

RoboPsych is about enabling effective, efficient relationships between people and robots. 

But, what, exactly, is a robot? 

It used to be simple to answer that question: it's a big lumbering hunk of metal with a stiff limbs and a mechanical voice.

Kind of like this:

Baxter and Human Friend

Baxter and Human Friend

But, times change. Nowadays robots come in all shapes and sizes.

And that's why the European Union created a commission called RoboLaw to investigate the ethical and legal implications of the dramatic increase in the world's robot population.

Dramatic increase?

Well, yes, if you include all the different types of robots the RoboLaw commission includes.

The commission's report creates a taxonomy for categorizing robots based on five characteristics:

  1. Task - Sometimes called, “use.” This refers to the specific purpose or application for which the robot is designed.
  2. Environment - This is the space outside of the robot, where the robot will carry out its actions. The main distinction is between physical and non-physical environments. That means that robots that operate in space, in the air, on land, water or within the human body (or other biological environments) and in cyberspace, such as software 'bots, or "softbots," all fit the definition.
  3. Nature - This is the way in which a robot manifests itself or exists. The main distinction here is 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. This makes it possible to enlarge the definition to include virtual robots or softbots, artificial biological robots, such as nanorobots (Dong, Subramanian & Nelson, 2007) and even hybrid-bionic systems, which are made of biological and mechatronic components (e.g. limb prosthesis).
  4. Human-robot interaction - 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 - This is the robot’s 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.

All five of these characteristics are important but Nature and Human-robot interaction are especially relevant for RoboPsych.


Our strong tendency to anthropomorphize (to attribute human characteristics to objects or animals) primes us to interact with even disembodied robots as if they were people. We easily ascribe motives, emotions and personalities to objects with the simplest human resemblance.  

We treat objects as if they were human from a very early age

We treat objects as if they were human from a very early age

If the robot system has interactive capability (like Siri's ability to answer questions), we will treat the system in a (at least) quasi-human fashion.  

So, embodied and disembodied autonomous and semi-autonomous systems will trigger deep social characteristics in us, reflecting the current state of our RoboPsych tendencies towards those systems. As robots become ubiquitous, and take on a wide array of forms, each of us will be relating to them more frequently, and more collaboratively, than ever before.

That means our RoboPsychs will become increasingly important skill sets in navigating our everyday world.