I recently spent an informative day sitting around a big table discussing medical robotics with a bunch of people who knew a lot more about medical robotics than I did. Since we were talking about modern cutting-edge technology or next-ten-years developments, the technical experts were all very clear that the "robots" in question will be highly sophisticated tools being used by human surgeons.
The robots may be able to reach places a human can't, or work at scales too tiny for a surgeon's hands, or do other things to expand human capabilities in the operating room. But they aren't robots, at least not in the R2-D2/Robbie the Robot/The Terminator sense. Nobody tells a medical robot "Do a heart transplant!" and certainly not "Cure that sick person!"
So why do we call them robots?
While there's no precise legal definition of "robot," I think most people understand that a "real" robot differs from a tool, even a very sophisticated tool, in the area of autonomy. Factory robots do their jobs without some bored technician controlling them with a joystick (in point of fact they work so fast I don't think anyone could control them without slowing them down to near-uselessness). And even they barely qualify as autonomous.
The popular, "folk" concept of a robot is a "mechanical man." Not necessarily humanoid in shape, but human-like in having at least some degree of volition. They may be slavishly obedient, but they don't need to be operated. A car is not a robot, not even one with fancy collision-avoidance systems and cruise control. But a self-driving car like the ones Google is trying to develop . . . that's more like a "real" robot. You don't steer it, you don't even give it directions; you just tell it where you want to go and let it solve the problem of getting you there, exactly as you would do with a human chauffeur. If the processor was in a humanoid body operating the car's existing controls with metal hands and feet, we would call it a "robot driver."
So, again: why do we keep inflating the term robot to describe things which don't actually match our idea of what robots are? Why this urge to call a surgical manipulator tool a "medical robot?" Or the urge to call a military remote-piloted vehicle a "war robot?"
I think it's because we want there to be robots. We, as a civilization, fell in love with the idea of robots a century ago and have been trying to wish them into existence ever since. (There was a "mechanical man" named Electro at the 1938 World's Fair.) We may use them in fiction as emblems of scientific hubris or technology out of control, but in the real world we love our robots.
One sees the same kind of "future creep" in other areas. I've commented elsewhere about how every tactical defensive system gets dubbed a "force field" by the media. And how every roadable aircraft becomes a "flying car."
We want the future. In particular we want the optimistic, no-limits, four-color future of a Frank R. Paul cover painting for Science Wonder Stories. We want to fly to Mars, or beyond the Solar System entirely. We want a friendly robot pal to ride along in the rumble seat — and an infallible robot doctor to patch us up if anything goes wrong.
It's frustrating how long the future is taking to arrive. Where's my Moon base?
I can't claim that science fiction has conquered the world, however flattering it may be to my fellow science fictioneers. It's more accurate to say that science fiction illustrators, and concept artists, and model makers, and costume designers and prop makers and matte-painting artists and set designers have conquered the world. In dozens of films, TV shows, magazine covers, and comic books, they showed us the future and we said "We'll take it!" and we've been trying to remake the world ever since.
If you want to enjoy two future worlds right now, buy my ebook!