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What is robotics?

Robotics is the branch of engineering and computer sciences where machines are built to perform programmed tasks without further human intervention.

Are robotics and artificial intelligence the same thing?

Though sometimes (incorrectly) used interchangeably, robotics and artificial intelligence are very different things. Artificial intelligence is where systems emulate the human mind to learn, solve problems and make decisions on the fly, without needing the instructions specifically programmed. Robotics is where robots are built and programmed to perform very specific duties.

What is the role of artificial intelligence in robots?

Projects using AI in robotics are in the minority, but such designs are likely to become more common in the future as our AI systems become more sophisticated. Here are some examples of existing robots that use AI.

Examples of robotics for households
The most obvious example of robots for households using AI is Amazon’s upcoming Astro bot. Essentially an Echo Show on wheels, the robot uses artificial intelligence to navigate autonomously around the home, acting as eyes and ears when you’re not around thanks to a periscope camera. This isn’t entirely new, as robot vacuums can also navigate around furniture. But here, too, AI is playing a greater role. Most recently iRobot, the company behind Roomba, announced that new models will use machine learning and AI to spot and avoid pet excrement.

Examples of robotics in manufacturing
The scope for robotic AI in manufacturing, also known as Industry 4.0, is potentially more transformational. This could be as simple as a robot algorithmically navigating its way around a busy warehouse, but companies like Vicarious are using AI on turnkey robotics where the task is too complex for programmed automation.

Examples of robotics for business
For any business that needs to send things within a four-mile radius, Starship Technologies’ delivery robots are a clever innovation. Equipped with mapping systems, sensors, and AI, the little robot on wheels can figure out the best route to take on the fly, all the while avoiding the dangers of the outside world.

Examples of robotics in healthcare
Medical professionals are often tired and overworked, and in the world of healthcare, fatigue can have fatal consequences. Robots don’t get tired, which potentially makes them a perfect substitute, and so-called “Waldo Surgeons” is capable of performing operations with incredible accuracy and a steady ‘hand.’

Examples of robotics in agriculture
As in healthcare, the future of robotics in agriculture could make labor shortages and worker fatigue feel less acute, but there’s another big potential advantage: sustainability. Iron Ox, for example, uses AI and robotics to try and ensure that each plant gets the optimal level of sunshine, water, and nutrients required to ensure it grows to its full potential.

Examples of robotics in aerospace

While NASA is currently looking to improve its Mars rovers’ artificial intelligence and working on an automated satellite repair robot, other companies are also keen to improve space exploration via robotics and AI. Airbus’ CIMON, for example, is a kind of Alexa in space, designed to assist astronauts with their day-to-day tasks and reduce stress via speech recognition, while also operating as an early-warning system to detect problems.

Examples of robotics for military

For obvious reasons, the military is less keen to shout about its achievements than others using robotic AI for less controversial purposes, but the future of AI weapons is very real, and autonomous military drones have seen actual combat.

What about software robots and artificial intelligence?

To make things a bit more confusing, the term “bot” — an abbreviation of “robot” — can also be used to describe software programs that autonomously complete tasks. And these sometimes also use artificial intelligence. Software bots aren’t a part of robotics, as they have no physical presence, and the term can describe anything from web crawlers to chatbots. The latter of these embraces artificial intelligence to respond appropriately to messages sent by humans.

Why wouldn’t you want to use artificial intelligence in robotics?
The main argument against using artificial intelligence in robots is that, in many cases, it simply isn’t necessary. The tasks currently outsourced to robots are predictable and repetitive, so adding any form of AI would simply be overkill when the work doesn’t require additional ‘thought’. But there’s a flip side to this, and it’s that, to date, most robotics systems have been designed with the limits of artificial intelligence firmly in mind. In other words, most robots have been created to perform simple, programmable tasks, because there wasn’t much scope for them to be able to do anything more complex. With advances in artificial intelligence coming on in leaps and bounds every year, it’s certainly possible that the line between robotics and artificial intelligence will become more blurred over the coming decades.

Robotics and artificial intelligence: a bright future
Robotics and artificial intelligence are two related but entirely different fields. Robotics involves the creation of robots to perform tasks without further intervention, while AI is how systems emulate the human mind to make decisions and ‘learn.’ While you can have robotics with an AI element (and vice versa), both can, and usually do, exist independently of each other. For most robots, designed to perform simple, repetitive tasks, there’s no need for advanced AI as the duties are simple, predictable, and pre-programmed. But many such AI-free robotics systems were created with past limitations of artificial intelligence in mind, and as the technology continues to advance in leaps and bounds each year, robotics manufacturers may feel increasingly confident in pushing the limits of what can be achieved by marrying the two disciplines. The cited examples of AI in manufacturing, aerospace, healthcare, and agriculture highlighted above can certainly leave us feeling confident that the future is bright for robotics and artificial intelligence.

The next big innovation may feel like science fiction today, but eminently possible tomorrow.

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