| Glossary | Technologies | Robots

Definition and delimitation

Robots are increasingly understood as autonomous, socio-technical machines. This means that their properties and technical characteristics can often only be understood in interaction with their environment and within the framework of the social context in which they are embedded. Interaction with humans plays a central role here, but so does the question of how the embedding of robotic systems affects a particular social context. [14]

This definition goes beyond a strictly technical understanding of robots, which has permanently changed and adapted to the state of the art over the past decades. In the 1980s, when robots were widely used in industrial manufacturing processes, they were understood as technical systems that establish an “intelligent” connection between perception and action [1]. Perception is performed by sensors that evaluate the state of the robot and its environment based on various parameters, while action is performed by means of locomotion or manipulation (by grippers, artificial hands, arms, etc.). The connection is usually made by integrated hardware or software components that enable programming, planning and control of movement sequences. Various, often model-based procedures and algorithms are used here, which translate abstract work tasks into concretely executable movement sequences [1]. Traditionally, there is no interaction with humans in this process.

Particularly in the context of the Industry 4.0 initiative, research is increasingly focusing on the use of robots as autonomous assistance systems in human-centred environments. This means that humans should now also be able to interact with the robot during the work process. Other requirements must be taken into account here, such as the safety and adaptability of such systems vis-à-vis human interaction partners.


The origin of the word “robot” is not actually a scientific one: the term comes from a drama by Karel Čapek entitled Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (published in German as R.U.R. – Rossum’s Universal Robots). However, the historical roots of robotics can be traced further back and are closely linked to the development of automatic or automating systems. Some of these early “automata” are now celebrated as great achievements of civilisation, including Heron’s temple doors of Alexandria, Su Song’s water clock and Leonardo da Vinci’s many designs.

The first steps of robotics as a science were recorded in the mid-20th century, when researchers used artificial intelligence and cybernetics to create a link between human and machine intelligence. The first application-ready robots became widespread in the 1960s in the form of so-called master-slave systems that could copy human arm motor functions using numerical control machines and without integrated microcomputers. Towards the end of the 1970s, computer-controlled systems were increasingly used in industry for the purpose of automating industrial production processes. [1]

A scientifically recognised “robotics community” has formally existed since 1982, when the first robotics journal was launched: The International Journal of Robotics Research (IJRR). Further milestones in the institutionalisation of robotics were the founding of the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in 1985 and the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) in 1988, which are still held today and are the linchpin of robotics research.

Since the turn of the millennium, there has been a trend to research not only structured environments (such as fenced workbenches in industrial manufacturing processes) but also less structured to unstructured environments. In these, regular interactions with humans should also be possible without danger. This new physical proximity of robots and humans has been made possible by novel control approaches that can ensure greater safety for interactions with humans [9]. New sub-disciplines of robotics, such as human-centred robotics (HCR), exemplify this trend. This new orientation led to the inclusion of several other disciplines and research fields in robotic research, including biomechanics, haptics, machine learning, social and human sciences, neuroscience and surgery.

Application and examples

Many predict that robotics will play a prominent role in the advancing automation and mechanisation of many areas of our society in the 21st century. Robotic systems are thus expected to take over certain tasks in many areas in which they have not or hardly been considered so far. [8] These do not necessarily have to be anthropomorphic (i.e. human-like) robots. These so-called humanoids tend to be the exception and are used in research and educational institutions or in areas where anthropomorphic design is expected to increase acceptance. Examples include the emotion robot “Pepper”, the humanoid “Nao” [15], and the assistance robot“Garmi” developed at the Technical University of Munich. In contrast, the emotion robot “Paro” has the shape of a seal and is currently being considered for the care of people in need of care and dementia patients. [7]

Furthermore, a variety of robotic systems exist for therapeutic areas, including the first exoskeletons and (partially) automated mobilisation systems. Other areas of application are:

  • Logistics (in the form of driverless transport vehicles).
  • Household and home work (as hoovers, lawn mowers or window cleaning devices)
  • Medicine (as operating systems in surgery)
  • Industrial manufacturing

Criticism and problems

Some critics fear that the widespread use of robotic systems could lead to the rationalisation of human labour (i.e. the replacement of human labour for economic reasons). Many also fear that robots will be proposed as technical solutions precisely where structural changes through social policy measures are actually needed. For example, some are sceptical about care robotics, as it is touted as a solution to the shortage of skilled nursing staff, even though “no market-ready care robots exist and neither the cared for nor the caregivers articulate any interest in such technology” [4].

This is linked to the criticism that robotics solutions for practical areas are often researched without really involving them in the research. Involvement of the voices concerned (e.g. of carers in the case of care robotics) then only takes place in order to validate the research afterwards, but not in order to actively participate. In this sense, it is also often criticised that robotic applications are developed without having first identified an explicit need for these technologies.

Furthermore, with the increasing use of robotic systems and the growing human-robot interaction (HRI) in personal and professional life, numerous ethical concerns naturally arise. The first attempt to formulate a set of “laws” for robotics was presented by Isaac Asimov [10]. Asimov’s famous “three laws of robotics” are as follows: 1. a robot must not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to be injured. 2. a robot must obey the commands given to it by humans, unless those commands would contradict the first law. 3. a robot must protect its own existence as long as this protection does not conflict with the first or second law. It should be noted, however, that these ideas were introduced in a work of fiction and are now widely criticised [11].

Other issues that are frequently discussed in the ethical literature on robotics and HRI include: the impact of human displacement and downsizing in various work settings; the questions of whether robots can or should be accorded moral or legal status; the problem of ascribing responsibility to robots; the prospect of robots acting morally, including whether robots can show empathy, form relationships and respect human privacy; and whether robotic systems can be made to overcome human biases. These are just a few examples of the many current debates [12][13].


The project “Responsible Robotics (RRAI)” at bidt deals with the social, ethical and legal dimensions of novel robotic systems as they are developed and implemented in healthcare practice. The assistance robot “Garmi” and robot-assisted telemedicine serve as concrete case studies.

In interdisciplinary work, the project develops concrete standards and recommendations for a responsible integration of robotic systems into working practice and training in healthcare. The research approach is based on an “embedded ethics” approach, in which ethical, social, legal and political analyses are integral parts of the product design process as well as its workplace integration [5]. The project results are discussed with stakeholders, tested in pilot projects and further disseminated.

The project “Empowerment in Tomorrow’s Production: Rethinking Mixed Skill Factories and Collaborative Robot Systems” deals with robots in manufacturing: The aim is to develop innovative concepts for collaboration between humans and robots in factories.


[1] B. Siciliano, O. Khatib, ‘Springer Handbook of Robotics’, Springer, 2016.

[2] Choset, Howie, et al. Principles of Robot Motion: Theory, Algorithms, and Implementations, MIT Press, 2005.

[3] Benjamin Lipp, Roboter in der Pflege als sozio-technisches Verschaltungsproblem. Theoretische Angebote der Technikforschung an die Pflege(wissenschaft) (01.04.2021), Beltz Juventa, 69469 Weinheim, ISSN: 1430-9653, 2019 #3, S.206.

[4] Jannis Hergesell, Arne Maibaum, Martin Meister, Genese und Folgen der Pflegerobotik. Die Konstitution eines interdisziplinären Forschungsfeldes. ISBN: 978-3-7799-3968-9, 2020.

[5] McLennan, S., Fiske, A., Celi, L.A. et al. An embedded ethics approach for AI development. Nat Mach Intell 2, 488–490 (2020).

[6] Tigard, D., Breuer, S., Ritt, K., Braun, M. Embedding ethics into every step of emerging technologies. bidt blogpost (2020).

[7] Shibata, T. (2012). Therapeutic Seal Robot as Biofeedback Medical Device: Qualitative and Quantitative Evaluations of Robot Therapy in Dementia Care. Proceedings of the IEEE, 100(8), 2527-2538.

[8] P. M. Leonardi, “Materiality, sociomateriality, and socio-technical systems: What do these terms mean? How are they different? Do we need them?” In: Materiality and organizing: Social interaction in a technological world, P. M. Leonardi, B. A. Nardi, and J. Kallinikos (Eds.). Oxford university press, 2012.

[9] Albu‐Schäffer, A., Haddadin, S., Ott, C., Stemmer, A., Wimböck, T. and Hirzinger, G. (2007), “The DLR lightweight robot: design and control concepts for robots in human environments”, Industrial Robot, Vol. 34 No. 5, pp. 376-385.

[10] Asimov, I. Runaround: A Short Story. Astounding Science Fiction (March 1942).

[11] Murphy, R. Woods, D. Beyond Asimov: the three laws of responsible robotics. IEEE intelligent systems 24, no. 4 (2009): 14-20.

[12] Müller, V.C. Ethics of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2020 Edition), E. N. Zalta (ed.).

[13] Gordon, J. Nyholm, S. Ethics of Artificial Intelligence. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[14] Danaher, J. Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World without Work, Harvard University Press, 2019.

[15] Sofia Thunberg, Sam Thellman, and Tom Ziemke. 2017. Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover: A Study of the Social Acceptance of NAO vs. Pepper. In Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Human Agent Interaction (HAI ’17). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 443–446.