Robots and Androids

Sony SDR-4X

This little chap, the Sony SDR-4X, gets top marks for cute; he can dance in synchronisation with others, can perform tai chi exercises and many other things. Always having been a fan of science-fiction and, having grown up reading books by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clark, it is now fascinating to watch as some of these dreams (so unreachable when the books were written) actually take shape and begin to become a reality.

So what, anyway, is the difference between a robot and an android? Well, although the terms are often interchanged or confused, a robot can be described as a machine which is capable of doing a job which would normally have been done by a human. An ordinary filter coffee machine would be too simple to fall into that category, but one with a timer which wakes you up to a fresh cup in the morning has the beginnings of a robot to it. More to the point, machines which can act autonomously, or semi-autonomously, can definitely be called robots – for example, lawn mowers and vacuum cleaners which can potter about your garden or house whilst you are away. An android, or anthropomorphic droid, is a robot which looks humanoid and can operate in a human environment.

Robots generally fall into two categories:
First are what I would call automated machines which can be programmed to do complex and varied tasks, usually faster and more accurately than the humans they replace. These usually appear in factories, and manufacture or assemble pretty much everything that we buy from shops these days. These robots require very specific conditions to work under (component parts need to be on belts or stacked in a specific way so that they can be picked up, that section of the factory needs to be designed around them), and even freely-moving robotic forklift trucks require a very controlled environment to work in – they can’t just drive off to the kiosk for a packet of cigs. What I’m getting at here is that, for most of these machines, the job has to be re-organised to suit the machine.

The second kind of robot is designed to move around and perform tasks in a human environment. Naturally, as we humans evolved to suit mobility in nature, and the structures that we build are designed for ‘Mr or Mrs Average Human’, the robots built to assist us in this area begin to look a bit like us. This is why a dishwasher is hardly a robot; we have to rinse off the dishes, put them in the machine, add powder, shut the door, switch it on etc. A robot would be able to collect the plates and fill the machine itself – or even perhaps stand at the sink and get his hands wet, the old-fashioned way.

The robot vacuum cleaner is still in its infancy. We have to control the area it works in, because it cannot (yet) distinguish a piece of bread from a piece of Lego, or a chocolate wrapper from a banknote. We must make sure that it can safely do its job. Also, as it has no legs, it cannot climb the stairs; and, as it has no arms, it cannot pick up a fallen toy and put it up on the table. However, this is in no way a criticism of the current state of robotics, because several faculties and businesses have been concentrating on separate areas and creating some amazing machines.


In this picture is Repliee Q1Expo (also known later as Repliee Q2, with enhanced features) with her creator Professor Hiroshi Ishiguru from Osata University. Technically, she is a gynoid (female android). Q1 has two sisters, Repliee R1, who looks like a five year-old Japanese girl, and a receptionist robot Actroid (right). Repliee Q1 is in no way the stiff, inanimate robot of the old movies; she moves, like a human, nearly all the time. She has facial expressions, can blink, appears to breath and shifts position in her chair just as humans do. At the moment, her movements are powered by an air compressor, which means she remains seated, but she is “aware” of human presence and reacts to touch (if you try to hit her she will block you). She also has other capabilities – she can speak and understand four languages (Chinese, Korean, English and Japanese) and could carry on conversations about the exhibition where she was ‘working’ as a receptionist. She could also small-talk, and if complimented would smile, and if insulted would sulk.


This is Eve R1 from Korea. At five-feet two she was designed to resemble a woman in her early 20s, is capable of upper-body movement, can distinguish faces via its eye-mounted cameras, and can look into your eyes while conversing through perfectly synchronised lips. Her face can show emotions, including happiness, anger and sadness, and her skin is made from a silicon gel designed to feel like human skin. She can’t walk yet, but clearly we have come a long way, and when the abilities of Honda’s walking robot,  the facial expressions of Repliee Q1 and the speech abilities of Actroid and Eve R1 are all rolled into one (and the androids learn to distinguish chocolate wrappers from banknotes), we will have the perfect receptionist, domestic help or even nanny. The Japanese have already developed and sold ‘companion’ robots for elderly or lonely people – these robots (they are not androids) can recognise up to ten different faces, greet people appropriately and make small-talk about their human’s day. They can also notice disturbances in a person’s routine, so if an old person takes a fall in the bathroom and fails to come out after some time, the robot can investigate and summon help if required.

It is hardly surprising that man should create robots ‘in his own image’; or rather, perhaps, the image of his ideal girl? So, watch out lads when a female robotics specialist creates the first Chippendale home-help android – you may have competition.


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