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Monday, March 2, 2009

What is a robot?

Robotics is not a new field. It has been around for decades. In fact, most people have robots in their own home, even if they don't recognize the robots as such. For example, a dishwasher automatically washes and dries your dishes, then grinds up the rinsed-off food so the organic matter doesn't clog your drains. A washing machine soaks, soaps, agitates, and rinses your clothes. Down the street, the car wash-n-wax cleans, brushes, washes, and waxes your car, all for a few dollars. One of the better known home-oriented robots is iRobot's smart vacuum cleaner, called the Roomba, which has already won the Good Housekeeping Award for efficiency and ease of use.

More sophisticated robots are used in manufacturing plants and warehouses. Car makers use automated machines to position car frames, bolt pieces together, and even do welds and priming. In wafer communications, test systems position themselves along grids, take measurements, and then correlate the data into graphs. Robot-assisted heart microsurgery is now performed routinely in the U.S.

To some extent, we have become so used to robots that we no longer pay attention to the automated machines. We look only at the tasks they complete, and we think of them simply as tools. It is easy to think this way: most of today's robots are stationary tools in fixed locations, like a fruit sorter in a cannery, or an alarm sensor that triggers a call to security.

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