Is there a difference between robots and artificial intelligence (AI)?

Some people assume that robot technology and AI are one and the same, while others think that AI is a subset of robotics (or vice versa).

It’s easy to see why people get AI and robots mixed up. Hollywood and pop culture are probably to blame.

For the past few decades, scriptwriters and novelists have had a heyday imagining humanoid robots with the capability to learn, love, and even create. Such tales almost always progress to a point where the machines surpass the intelligence of their organic creators. Sometimes they even go on to take over the world in an epic battle of human versus machine.

That is, of course, merely a fantasy at this point. We humans are a far cry from developing anything along those lines.

And yet, new AI and robotics technology trends and developments are rapidly progressing. These advancements incorporate both robotic process automation and artificial intelligence, and are blurring the line between AI and robots in strange and wonderful ways.

As these technologies develop, the distinctions between the two disciplines has become increasingly confusing. This confusion has led to a rash of technologies and products being publicly mislabelled and further muddying the waters.

For those of us who deal with AI technology every day, this trend can be quite irritating.

So we at Phrasee have decided to take a closer look at the differences between robots and AI and show exactly where the key distinctions lie.

AI and robots: what’s the difference?

AI and robots: What's the difference?

What is artificial intelligence?

Artificial intelligence is a computer program designed to solve difficult problems which humans (and animals) routinely solve. The goal of AI is to develop programs which can solve such problems independently, although the patterns for solving these problems differ significantly from the way they are solved by humans.

Generally speaking, these types of programs are currently most often designed to process huge amounts of data (far more than a human brain can), look for trends and patterns, and then provide insights based on those patterns. They can also be designed execute very specific tasks.

When most people hear the term “AI” they associate the concept with machines which possess the cognitive ability and adaptability to deal with reason, emotions and uncertainty.

But, as AI currently manifests, such cognitive ability and adaptability has not been developed.

Although the Jetsons’ Rosie the Robot Maid and Star Wars’ C-3PO have set our expectations pretty high, they still only exist in the realm of science fiction.

What AI can do is perform a particular task (or set of particular tasks) very well. In most cases AI can perform such tasks faster, longer and with greater accuracy than a human could.

A few excellent examples of AI are IBM’s Watson, Google’s Siri or Twitter’s chatbots.

If you were to ask an AI system to perform a task other than what it was originally assigned to do, it would fail despite any seemingly obvious similarities a human would recognise.

What is a robot?

If AI is the software then robots are the hardware.

A robot is a mechanical device that is capable of movement. It is designed to perform a movement/function (or series of movements/functions) automatically, whether simple or complex.

But without guidance, it can do nothing. In many cases, this guidance comes in the form of AI.

An AI-guided robot welding a specific joint on a metal stand on its own is completing a simple task. A complex task would involve an AI-guided robot moving from point A to point B while scanning an assortment of items on the floor and then picking up and storing only those that weighed between two and three ounces. In both instances, there is no “thinking” involved because the robot does exactly what it is designed to do right from the beginning.

Some robots operate off an external control device, which eliminates the need for AI altogether. In such cases, a human handler takes the place of AI. But once AI is added to the equation, we get a robot with autonomous capabilities. Although they can work for an extended period of time without human intervention, they are still strictly confined to their delegated tasks.

How are AI and robots connected?

So how are these two fields related to each other? Is AI a subset of robotics or is it the other way around?

These two fields of science are actually very different and are not a subset of each other. However, their combination is a growing area of study and a significant area of research. Generally speaking, there are two ways that AI is combined with robots to complete repetitive tasks that can often be completed over time through a process called machine learning.

The first type is a robot that is installed with AI software designed to follow pre-programmed logical steps, which makes it seem to be thinking on its own. An example of this is the Roomba. This robotic vacuum “learns” the layout of your unique floors (and knows how to avoid falling down the stairs), cleans up the dust and dirt, and even self-docks and charges when its battery is low. However, it’s not smart enough to “know” how to empty its bin yet because it hasn’t been programmed to handle that decision. It can double as an entertaining cat vehicle however!

The other way that robots and AI perform together is by learning a desired response through physical repetition, similar to how you would train a dog. The industrial robot, Baxter, is used in factories for packaging or assembling items. While its software is running, a technician teaches Baxter a series of movements by guiding its gripper and moving it around. After several repetitions, the robot knows what to do and takes the initiative to perform the task itself.

When AI and robotics are combined, designers often create machines with animal-like or humanoid characteristics. Certain height-weight-size combinations are blatantly practical, such as being tall enough to turn on light switches or small enough to fit through doorways. Plus, nature’s designs are tried and true, which is why many of our land mammals efficiently sport four legs instead of ten.  

What’s the difference between robots and AI?

Still confused about how AI and robots are different? Remember today’s key takeaways:

  • Artificial intelligence is a computer program designed to solve difficult problems which humans (and animals) routinely solve. The goal of AI is to develop programs which can solve such problems independently, although the patterns for solving these problems differ significantly from the way they are solved by humans.
  • Robots are physical machines that are designed to carry out specific tasks on their own (autonomously) or through external controls.  
  • When AI is integrated with robots, autonomous robots are born.

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