What Is a Robot? Rodney Brooks Offers an Answer—in Sonnet Form

We asked famed roboticist Rodney Brooks to explain his definition of robot. He sent us a sonnet

1 min read
MIT humanoid robot Cog holding up a black and white portrait of Rodney Brooks
In this 1995 photo, the humanoid robot Cog, built by a group of MIT researchers led by Rodney Brooks, is shown with a black-and-white portrait of its creator.
Photo: John B. Carnett/Bonnier Corp./Getty Images

Editor's Note: When we asked Rodney Brooks if he'd write an article for IEEE Spectrum on his definition of robot, he wrote back right away. “I recently learned that Warren McCulloch"—one of the pioneers of computational neuroscience—“wrote sonnets," Brooks told us. “He, and your request, inspired me. Here is my article—a little shorter than you might have desired." Included in his reply were 14 lines composed in iambic pentameter. Brooks titled it “What Is a Robot?" Later, after a few tweaks to improve the metric structure of some of the lines, he added, “I am no William Shakespeare, but I think it is now a real sonnet, if a little clunky in places."

What Is a Robot?*
By Rodney Brooks

Shall I compare thee to creatures of God?
Thou art more simple and yet more remote.
You move about, but still today, a clod,
You sense and act but don't see or emote.

You make fast maps with laser light all spread,
Then compare shapes to object libraries,
And quickly plan a path, to move ahead,
Then roll and touch and grasp so clumsily.

You learn just the tiniest little bit,
And start to show some low intelligence,
But we, your makers, Gods not, we admit,
All pledge to quest for genuine sentience.

So long as mortals breathe, or eyes can see,
We shall endeavor to give life to thee.

* With thanks to William Shakespeare

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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