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How many facets does a “social robot” have? A review of scientific and popular definitions online

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On the verge of what has been hailed as the next technological revolution, the purpose of this paper is to examine scientific and popular definitions of the social robot, reflecting on how expert and lay spheres of knowledge interact. Drawing on social representations theory, this paper aims to elucidate how social robots are named and classified, and to examine the dynamics contributing to their definition.


Scientific and popular definitions of the social robot were investigated by conducting: a systematic review of relevant articles published from 2009 to 2015 in the International Journal of Social Robotics; an analysis of the definitions retrievable from the scientific literature using Google Scholar; and an assessment of the interest in the public sphere, and of the popular definitions retrievable online (by inputting “social robot” in Google Trends, and in Google).


Scientific definitions of the social robot adopt two strategies, one drawing on and merging previous definitions, the other proposing new, visionary, forward-looking definitions. Popular online definitions of social robots attribute new emotional, linguistic and social capabilities to their physical body.

Research limitations/implications

The findings need to be confirmed by further research, given the limited size of the data sets considered, and the distortions in the data due to filters and the opacity of the online tools employed.


Both scientific and non-scientific definitions see social robots as being capable of interacting with and working for humans, but attribute them a different degree of (functional or full) autonomy. In future, any controversy over the connotation of social robots is likely to concern their sociality and autonomy rather than their functionality.
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Keywords: Knowledge integration; Literature review; Shared knowledge; Text analysis

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Department of Communication and Social Research, Università degli Studi di Roma La Sapienza, Roma, Italy 2: Department of Education Studies, Università degli Studi di Bologna, Bologna, Italy 3: Department of Mathematics, Computer Science and Physics, Università degli Studi di Udine, Udine, Italy

Publication date: April 8, 2019

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