From Dr. Frankenstein’s horrific experiment in reanimation to its distant relatives, which include Star Trek’s, Commander Data and Schwarzenegger’s intimidating Terminator, sentient beings created in man’s image from inanimate objects have captured the human imagination. Though fully fleshed realizations of either Data’s android or the Terminator cyborg still remain beyond the limits of current technological capability, humans do share certain characteristics with these mechanized life forms, which are commonly referred to as “robots.”
While both the bodies of a human being and robot could be considered types of machines, the former are the products of biology, whereas the latter are scientifically engineered constructions. Although both are capable of performing tasks, a robot is usually created to perform a specific task or series of tasks. A robotic mobile servicing arm on a space station (remotely controlled to perform certain maintenance activities, grapple other pieces of equipment, or even procure samples of debris) as well as the Mars Rover are just two examples. A robot may also be part of a virtual device, such as the “bots” used in software.
While a robot can explore terrain inhospitable or potentially fatal to humans, its mechanical body, much like that of its human counterpart, is subject to the exigencies of that particular environment, whether that be deep sea, deep space, or one involving extremes of temperature and pressure. Just as humans sometimes find themselves at the mercy of genetics and heredity, a robot’s “health” depends wholly on the skill of those who designed its chassis, engineered its casing, and wired and programmed its often complex circuitry.
Human beings are capable of independent thought, feeling, and judgement. The ability to remember, as well as learn, helps us adapt to certain situations and environments in a timely manner. That which resembles human consciousness in a robot must be programmed. To help robots think more like their human counterparts, NASA scientists have employed two tools to this end: fuzzy logic and neural networks. While both technologies bestow a certain degree of logistical capability in their robotic recipients, their success in decoding often ambiguous linguistic cues or affecting mnemonic abilities is still in its rudimentary stages.
Beyond the capacity for independent thought, perhaps one of the most important distinctions separating humans from robots is the former’s ability to feel genuine emotion. As previously stated, everything a robot does must be programmed, and while a robot may be programmed to detect and even mimic human emotions, its responses are superficial rather than spontaneous.
Perhaps the most important distinction between humans and robots lies in the essence of creation, itself: humans made robots, not vice versa.