Robot Or Not?

One of my favorite podcasts is Robot or Not?, in which Jason Snell asks John Siracusa to rule on whether a given thing is, or isn’t, a robot. Episodes often last just three or four minutes. It’s a neat little thing. Go check it out.

I mentioned the podcast to a friend the other day and was trying to spell out what I think Siracusa’s rules are for determing robot candidacy He may have made this explicit at one point or another but, going from memory of his rulings, I came up with what I think are Siracusa’s three criteria for robothood (because robot rules always come in threes). A robot must have:

  1. A primarily inorganic, technological body that
  2. It considers to be itself; and
  3. Be capable of independent operation.

Thus, for Siracusa, a Terminator is a robot because it is made of metal despite being wrapped in living tissue and can operate just fine without its fleshy coverings; Darth Vader (and similar cyborgs) is not because he’s a person who’s been augmented with metal parts.

An artificial intelligence is not a robot because it has no body (per 1); an A.I. that can temporarily animate a metal body is not also not a robot (per 2) because it considers that body to be disposable and destroying the body does not destroy the program. An A.I. that installs itself into one body and stays there might be a robot if it comes to think of that body as an inextricable part of itself.

Vehicles or mechs piloted by a human are not robots, nor are drones that are driven remotely, because they don’t operate independently (per 3). Animatronic creatures, assembly line robots, and self-driving cars, while not being directly controlled by humans, are not robots because their operation is still tied to direct instructions by a human. This isn’t to say that a car-shaped robot couldn’t work as a taxi for its job, so long as it was otherwise capable of making its own decisions.

Food for thought: how does mortality affect robothood? Siracusa does not consider an A.I. that can hop between bodies to be a robot. What about a robot that makes backups of itself? If a robot is killed but then restored from a backup in a new body, does that make it not a robot but an A.I.? I wrote a bit about the idea or mortality and robots and love a little while ago. Personally I’d vote that yes, Casanova’s Ruby Seychelle a) is a robot (she’s clearly flesh-covered like a Terminator but a robot underneath) and b) would still have been a robot if she’d been restored from a backup into a new body, because she’d continue to think of her new body as her. I guess there’s a bit of “replace the axe handle, replace the head” to it all.