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Is a Microwave a Robot?

One question has kept me up at night recently: is a microwave a robot?

What is or is not a robot is a little hard to define. Microwaves are highly autonomous - you give them a mission to heat food and they almost always accomplish it without further human intervention. Self-driving cars on the other hand may call for human help many times during a single trip.

In terms of interaction with the physical world a microwave is very limited, it can neither detect the state of a traffic light nor move at more than a few meters per second before all the sparks coming out of it become a real problem.

So a microwave simultaneously lies at the extremes, its operation is highly autonomous but it knows almost nothing about the world around it and can only heat up the objects placed inside it.

2023-08-30T15:14:27.212222 image/svg+xml Matplotlib v3.7.2, https://matplotlib.org/
Possible Robots
Note: All the values are made up arbitrarily.

Autonomy: Given a mission a microwave doesn’t usually need human intervention. Effect: While a microwave is more autonomous than, say, an explosives disposal robot, it’s much less capable of affecting the world, e.g. by moving around or touching other objects. Perception: Microwaves tend to have some basic perception, such as internal moisture sensing, but otherwise are essentially limited to human inputs.

Microwaves are very autonomous but their lack of perception or ability to affect the world around them in a more general way mean that - as you might’ve guessed the minute you saw the title - a microwave is not a robot (in my opinion).

The obvious follow up question is “what might make a microwave a robot?”

  • Mobility is always a good candidate, e.g. a microwave that brings your food to you when it’s finished heating it
  • External effect, such as identifying and heating up objects outside the microwave (what could possibly go wrong)
  • Maybe just more advanced sensing, e.g. identifying the object put into the microwave and its current temperature then heating it automatically without extra human input beyond moving the object.