People once thought of artificially intelligent machines as things of the future, but today, the future is now. AI and robotics are having a transformative impact on numerous industries, and the potential for future uses of these technologies is vast. Already, AI-driven robotics is taking over repetitive tasks in factories, delivering food to our doorsteps, and even driving our cars for us. As the applications of AI and robotics continue to expand, these fields are poised to offer more career opportunities as well.
Robotics is the academic field focused on the design and construction of robots that can be programmed to complete tasks independently. The goal of robotics is to automate tedious or dangerous tasks so that humans don’t have to do them. Many robots are used in factories, lifting heavy objects or doing repetitive assembly-line work. A human might get frustrated by the tedium of these tasks or injured doing them, but a robot will keep following the same prompt at the same pace without complaint. This means that the work is done more efficiently while humans can focus on doing more interesting and less physically taxing tasks.
Modern robots frequently incorporate AI, but these two things are not the same. The simplest way to think of it is that robots are mindless machines, while AI is like a computerized brain.
Robots are automatons that are programmed to do a specific task. Often, this task requires little or no thought: You don’t need a lot of brainpower to pick up a bolt and screw it into a hole over and over again, for instance, or to repeatedly pick up a box on one conveyor belt and place it on a second conveyor belt that’s behind you.
AI, on the other hand, is technology that allows a computer to think, learn, and solve problems. Many applications of AI are pieces of software that we use on computers or other digital devices. However, AI can also be built into robots, giving them the power to carry out physical tasks and use human-like intelligence while doing so. For example, companies have built delivery robots that can bring takeout orders from a restaurant to your house. To do this, the robot uses AI to navigate its environment, following a map from point A to point B while also adjusting its course to avoid obstacles such as cars and pedestrians.
AI can take the abilities of robots to the next level by allowing them to collect and analyze data from their environment using onboard sensors, then employ machine learning to gain understanding of this data and make adaptations accordingly. Rather than just following one repeated prompt, AI-powered robots can solve problems and make decisions based on the information they gather from their sensors. This can be as simple as deciding to go around a mailbox instead of running into it or as complex as sensing vibrations within themselves to detect when the robots need maintenance.
Some of the most well-known uses of AI and robotics together are the growing number of robotic devices that can move as well as sense and adapt to their surroundings. An obvious example of this is self-driving cars, which can stay within their lane, sense the movements of vehicles and pedestrians around them, and swerve to avoid obstacles. But there’s also a much smaller, more commonplace use of this type of technology: robotic vacuum cleaners, which need to sense their environment and adjust their path to cover every inch of the floor while navigating around furniture and not falling down the stairs. Robots with AI-powered navigational skills are also increasingly appearing in hotels, where they’re used to deliver requested items to guests’ rooms, like a meal from room service or a few extra towels.
Robots with AI can also take care of tasks that require a combination of rote movements and judgment, such as packing parcels containing items of different sizes and weights for shipment. And they can handle complex and precise work that has no margin for error, like assembling components to be used on spacecraft.
Many of these robotic creations are designed and built by robotics engineers. Robotics engineers are in charge of creating, installing, testing, and maintaining robotic systems in a wide variety of fields, from health care to manufacturing. These professionals ensure that robotic systems work effectively and safely, and they stay on top of the latest technological developments and work to incorporate these advances into their devices and processes. Robotics engineers straddle the line between mechanical engineers and computer scientists, drawing on the skills of both to solve problems and develop the next generation of robots.
Much of the current research in this field is focused on the integration of a robot’s data-collection capabilities with AI’s analytical abilities. Robots’ sensors can collect detailed data about their environment, and AI can then learn from this data; combined, the effect can be much like a toddler walking around a new play area, with the robot able to move around and use its sensors to explore while the AI integrates the data to develop a better understanding of the world. This is a big step toward the larger goal of developing robots with artificial general intelligence, or AGI. AGI is what we see in sci-fi movies: It’s artificial intelligence that has reached a truly human level of cognition, so that the robot’s ability to think, reason, and interact with the world is the same as ours.
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