A robot is a machine designed to execute one or more tasks automatically with speed and precision. There are as many different types of robots as there are tasks for them to perform.
Robots that resemble humans are known as androids; however, many robots aren't built on the human model. Industrial robots, for example, are often designed to perform repetitive tasks that aren't facilitated by a human-like construction. A robot can be remotely controlled by a human operator, sometimes from a great distance. A telechir is a complex robot that is remotely controlled by a human operator for a telepresence system, which gives that individual the sense of being on location in a remote, dangerous or alien environment and the ability to interact with it. Telepresence robots, which simulate the experience and some of the capabilities of being physically present, can enable remote business consultations, healthcare, home monitoring and childcare, among many other possibilities.
An autonomous robot acts as a stand-alone system, complete with its own computer (called the controller). The most advanced example is the smart robot, which has a built-in artificial intelligence (AI) system that can learn from its environment and its experience and build on its capabilities based on that knowledge.
Swarm robots, sometimes referred to as insect robots, work in fleets ranging in number from a few to thousands, with all fleet members under the supervision of a single controller. The term arises from the similarity of the system to a colony of insects, where the individuals and behaviors are simple but the fleet as a whole can be sophisticated.
Robots are sometimes grouped according to the time frame in which they were first widely used. First-generation robots date from the 1970s and consist of stationary, nonprogrammable, electromechanical devices without sensors. Second-generation robots were developed in the 1980s and can contain sensors and programmable controllers. Third-generation robots were developed between approximately 1990 and the present. These machines can be stationary or mobile, autonomous or insect type, with sophisticated programming, speech recognition and/or synthesis, and other advanced features. Fourth-generation robots are in the research-and-development phase, and include features such as artificial intelligence, self-replication, self-assembly, and nanoscale size (physical dimensions on the order of nanometers, or units of 10-9 meter).
Some advanced robots are called androids because of their superficial resemblance to human beings. Androids are mobile, usually moving around on wheels or a track drive (robots legs are unstable and difficult to engineer). The android is not necessarily the end point of robot evolution. Some of the most esoteric and powerful robots do not look or behave anything like humans. The ultimate in robotic intelligence and sophistication might take on forms yet to be imagined.
The term comes from a Czech word, robota, meaning "forced labor." The word robot first appeared in a 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Capek, R.U.R.: Rossum's Universal Robots. In the play, the robots eventually overthrow their human creators. One early example of a robotic design dates back to about 1478: Leonardo da Vinci's car, a spring-driven autonomous system that was likely created to cause a sensation at court.
See a brief history of robotics from PBS: