To activate something is to start it off, trigger it, or set it in motion. A villain in a late-night movie might say, “Activate the robot chickens!” And then you’re free to activate your remote and change the channel.
To activate something is to make it active. It’s not just for bad guys — when you activate a credit or library card, you can start using it. When a coach activates a player on a sports team, the player enters the game. If someone activates a bomb, you should run. If the pancakes you’re cooking burst into flames, you’ll probably activate the smoke alarm. And you should run.