World's First Robot Census Prompts Existential Robot Questions

What is a robot?

PR2 Pairs Socks

At Carnegie Mellon University, one robotics student estimates that there are more robots than students in the department, but in a shameful display of mammalian arrogance, the precise number and type of said robots is unknown. That realization led the student, Heather Knight, to begin the world's first robot census.

Knight, a graduate student in robotics (Carnegie Mellon is the only school in the country to offer a degree program in robotics), began by counting the 547 robots present on the CMU campus, not including its government-run satellite lab in which several hundred secret robots are estimated to be languishing. But that was only the beginning.

The quest to document robots spread from Carnegie Mellon to the Makers, a community of DIY enthusiasts organized loosely by MAKE Magazine and its accompanying Maker's Faire events. Knight put out word on the census through the Makers, and set up her own online census, which, it should be noted, is far more in-depth than the U.S. government's census. It asks for such information as "functional category" (companion, medical, entertainment, research), "degree of local intelligence," and the dates of both conception and birth.

But all this analysis of robots prompts a more existential question: What exactly is a robot? Knight's own three "minimum, but not sufficient" requirements are as follows: "They must act in the world, sense the world, and they need to have computation." But, as Technology Review notes, that rather broad list allows smart home appliances, like dishwashers, that demonstrate some degree of autonomy. The census itself doesn't really address these issues: If you think your creation qualifies, then by all means, fill out the census.

It's a great project, not just for its inherently amusing format but for its ability to bring the robotics community together, showing these makers what else is out there. And it's serving to bring more attention to robotics, which Knight says is a struggle in the west, due to the Terminator. (I notice, for what it's worth, that "time-traveling cyber assassin" is not listed among the possible categories.)

Here at PopSci, we've got our own little informal census going, including Mars-bound robot planes, an utterly bizarre dancing swan, a vaguely racist bow-and-arrow-wielding archerbot, and, of course, military robots that lie through their figurative robotic teeth.