In science fiction and in the real world, there are quite a number of gray areas. National Robotics Week (April 10 – 18, 2010) seems like a good time to discuss one particular fuzzy line: the difference between robots and androids. Both words are usually used interchangeably, which is why R2-D2 is called a droid, a derivative of android. (Side note: Verizon’s Droid site states: DROID is a trademark of Lucasfilm Ltd. and its related companies. Used under license.) While on the surface this might seem correct, there is a major difference between robots and androids.

A robot can, but does not necessarily have to be in the form of a human, but an android is always in the form of a human. So, following this line of reasoning, SRI International‘s Shakey was a robot, while ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication LaboratoriesGeminoid F is an android. There is, however, an issue with the definition of an android: Just what does “in the form of a human” mean?

It can be argued that an android should be able to pass as a human in natural light. So, if you subscribe to this belief, C-3PO from Star Wars and R. Giskard Reventlov from Isaac Asimov’s The Robots of Dawn are robots, not androids. The reason for this conclusion is that by no stretch of the imagination can either pass as human. On the other hand, Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation (right) can pass as human (albeit a human with an odd complexion), so it falls in the android classification.

Gene Roddenberry’s Questor android from The Questor Tapes can also pass as human. Actually despite Questor’s emotional issues (which are akin to Data’s emotional issues), Questor has an easier time passing as a human. Some of this acceptance is due to androids being in the realm of science fiction on 20th century Earth.

My personal definitions are by no means hard and fast; consider, for example, Isaac Asimov’s character Andrew from the novella The Bicentennial Man and film of the same name. In the story, Andrew began his existence as a robot and through a series of upgrades and modifications becomes more and more human-like, transitioning to android and possibly even human. While Andrew’s journey is fascinating and uplifting, it brings up a question that we’ll explore in another post: What is the difference between an android and a human?

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