Cracking the code: Learn the new lingo of robotics

As tech catches up somewhat with fiction and fantasy, here’s an updated lexicon of robot-related terms from the real world so you can get with the programme.
Prosthesis: The Anti-Robot looks like scaffolding but can walk, race and fight. (Furrion) PREMIUM
Prosthesis: The Anti-Robot looks like scaffolding but can walk, race and fight. (Furrion)
Updated on Aug 07, 2021 05:00 PM IST
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Actroid: The term for a robot designed to closely resemble a human being. They’re life-size, look life-like and can blink, converse and pretend to breathe. They’ve been developed by Osaka University. Most models, for now, look like young Japanese women.

An actroid mimics breathing and blinking to put humans at ease. (Osaka University)
An actroid mimics breathing and blinking to put humans at ease. (Osaka University)

Android: Before it was an operating system, android was the term for any robot (real or fictional) that was created in the rough form of a human – face, eyes, limbs and so on.

Automata: Any device, particularly early machines, that could follow a set of instructions. Cuckoo clocks; wind-up toys; French engineer Jacques de Vaucanson’s Flute Player, built in 1737, which could play 12 songs; mechanical dolls. They’re widely considered the precursors of modern robotics.

Wind-up toys were early mechanical inventions that allowed us to imagine how robots might develop. (Shutterstock)
Wind-up toys were early mechanical inventions that allowed us to imagine how robots might develop. (Shutterstock)

Biomimetic: By itself, biomimetic simply means copying a natural process using an artificial method. Child-Robot with Biomimetic Body (CB2) is a 2007 Japanese experiment featuring a robot that looked like a child and was used to learn how human toddlers communicate and learn language. CB2 was childlike – it responded to touch and sound, it could see and speak. It’s helped pave the way for robots in human development.

CB2 is a childlike bot that responds to sound and touch. Researchers designed it to assist children. (Osaka University)
CB2 is a childlike bot that responds to sound and touch. Researchers designed it to assist children. (Osaka University)

Bionic: In medicine, the term refers to replacing or enhancing an organ or a body part with an advanced mechanical replica rather than a limited-use prosthetic. In tech that term is powered up – bionic fingers respond to muscle and brain signals to clench, grip, even flex. These inventions draw on both biology and machinery.

Cobot: Essentially a collaborative robot designed to work alongside humans, especially in manufacturing industries. Unlike regular machines, their sensors pick up cues from humans to assess when to speed up, slow down, make small adjustments, or take a break.

Gundam are fictional. They work when there’s a telepathic human sitting inside. (Sotsu-Sunrise)
Gundam are fictional. They work when there’s a telepathic human sitting inside. (Sotsu-Sunrise)

Gundam: The giant robots that lend their name to the massively successful Japanese anime franchise. Each gundam is controlled by a genetically advanced, often telepathic, human sitting in the cockpit in the robot’s torso.

Gynoid: Robots designed specifically as female. This means anything from pronounced breasts to sexualised features and yielding responses to verbal cues. Several real-life robots are also being designed as female to appear less threatening.

More robots are being designed to look like women, often because they appear less threatening. (Shutterstock)
More robots are being designed to look like women, often because they appear less threatening. (Shutterstock)

Humanoid: Simply, human-looking. The term has racist origins. Europeans used it to describe indigenous peoples in the areas they colonised.

Limbed vehicles: As the name suggests, real-life insect-like robots with six to eight legs so they move efficiently.

Mecha: A kind of Japanese manga and anime with a strong focus on robotics, smart machines and advanced tech.

Singularity: That point in the future when tech has become so advanced, it’s made machines smarter than all humans. It’s a point when sentient machines might wonder if it’s worth keeping humans around at all. Some studies indicate that we might approach that point of no return by 2040-2050.

Tetrapod exoskeleton: You, but expanded into a huge robot, with you sitting inside. A real-life, 4,000-kg version was built in 2017 and named Prosthesis: The Anti-Robot by the Canadian firm Furrion Exo-Bionics. It’s a four-legged, all-terrain machine that looks like scaffolding but can walk, race and fight competitively. Inside it is a human whose movements are mirrored and amplified by the machine. Prosthesis holds the Guinness World Record for largest tetrapod exoskeleton. A kind of Gundan, but built in the real world, for a specific purpose.

Uncanny valley: A term to mark the graph of how humans respond to human-like robots. On the whole, we respond positively when machines mimic humans. But after a point, the more realistic the machines get, the more unsettling it becomes for humans. This “uncanny valley” is at the heart of how robots are being designed to interact with humans.

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Monday, October 25, 2021