One of the hidden joys of being an entrepreneur is that people are very curious about my profession and what it is like to work at a startup. People have a ton of questions around my industry - robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). Sometimes I notice a sheepish expression or a reluctance to ask a question that is clearly bugging them. More often than not, this question is "What exactly is the difference between robotics and AI? I'm not sure; can you explain it to me?" It's refreshing to hear what people are wondering (is the robot apocalypse coming?), and rewarding to be able to chat about the ways our world can benefit when these two technologies work together. It is especially satisfying when I see faces light up when the dynamics are better understood.
Blockbuster science-fiction movies like "Star Wars" and "The Terminator" introduced generations of us to a spectrum of robot and AI characters. These fictional figures are now common popular culture reference points. Although portrayed as capable of knowing everything, of outsmarting and overpowering us, fears of a takeover by the witty, verbose C-3PO or the unstoppable, deadly Terminator cyborgs are pure fantasy. In reality, if you peek behind the curtain, you'll see that the realms of robotics and AI are fascinating, though fairly benign, and enhancing how we live and work.
But what is a robot anyway? A robot is an electromechanical device capable of performing a diverse array of autonomous physical functions. They’re mechanisms that mimic, replicate or serve as surrogates for functions and tasks that humans find too dull, difficult, or dangerous to perform—and they're already common in many industries.
Putting 10,000 circuits on a circuit board in three minutes? Perfectly glaze 500 chocolate donuts all at once? Help out in fields by planting vegetables or in kitchens by making hamburgers, pizzas, salads, and even rolling sushi? Pick through a collapsed office building in search of survivors? These are all examples of robot work. Robots can do a lot, and that's a good thing—but they're far from being able to do everything.
Similarly, artificial intelligence is everywhere, too, though we often don’t recognize it for what it is. AI, a term coined by computer scientist John McCarthy during a 1956 Dartmouth College workshop, is a field that endeavors to mimic human cognition via technology. It strives to create computational devices that simulate human cognitive ability. That’s a lot of jargon, but simply put, for a device, program, or computer to possess a degree of AI, it will do one of the following:
- Simulates higher functions of the human brain
- Operates using general language; no specific programming language needed
- Simulates neuron structures of the brain to form concepts
- Can determine and measure problem complexity
- Can engage in self-improvement
- Can engage in abstraction: Defined as the quality of dealing with ideas rather than events
- Can perform acts of randomness and creativity
AI research over time became significant in mathematics, science, meteorology, economics, psychology, and of course, computer science. Then, it exploded in the new millennium with the advent of video gaming, virtual simulation, the internet, and social media. Since 2015, AI technology has advanced at an even faster pace, arguably, than that of robots. We’re in the information age now, and AIs thrive on the web. They play a critical—and constant—part in our lives. Don’t think so? Just ask Siri what she thinks about that!
Yet, for all of this progress, technological constraints have kept robots and AI advancing sluggishly in their respective corners. Developments in the robotics field, for example, are still dictated by the reality, physics, and practicality of our twenty-first-century world. We've come a long way from earlier generations of general purpose robots. But even many of today's "smart" robots operate as essentially stationary devices and almost none are truly autonomous. Meanwhile, within AI, hurdles to advancement include the lack of computing power and the highly specialized nature of most AIs, i.e. the fact that they're so customized to perform one task makes it difficult to replicate them for mass, general application.
Recent developments, however, enable robots and AI to work in harmony with greater frequency and fluidity than before. This means that they're progressing at more compatible rates, combining to help refine tools we use in everyday life, automating certain routine tasks, and empowering us to be more efficient in our work. Our lives are already intertwined with and facilitated by robotics and AI, which are critical components of almost every industry from healthcare, finance, and art to construction and food production. And while progress must match the reality that robots and AI can only perform one set task, not complex multiple tasks at the same time, robotics and AI is a dynamic field. That's why AI research and development is such a hot funding area: in 2016, it accounted for some $4.9B in investment.
By now, you may be wondering: All right…If AI exists, then where’s my chrome-plated robo-butler? Why aren’t robotics and AI playing nicer and giving me smart robots that do all the tasks I want in my home, like Rosie the Robot from “The Jetsons?” But they do! Just not in that grandiose Hollywood way that everyone has come to anticipate.
Instead, robots and AI are combining to assist us in less glamorous, yet impactful ways. They've helped soft drink companies determine what new product to launch and enabled food manufacturers to better match supply to demand, reducing the vast quantities of food wasted (in the United States alone, some 150,000 tons of food are wasted each day). Robotic vacuum cleaners like Neato clean floors, while the many different nursing-care robots developed in Japan to provide elder care for an aging population are improving the quality of lives around the world.
Closer to home, these technologies are already part of our daily lives. The ATM that you interact with to do your electronic banking? The self-checkout stations at the grocery store? These are examples of how robots and AI work together at a pretty benign level: they can't do anything other than check out your groceries, deposit a check, or dispense cash.
As these examples illustrate, robots and AI help eliminate some of the repetition involved in tasks that don't spark creativity or require meaningful use of our brains. Deploying robots to take care of mundane tasks frees up time for more engaging, valuable work that empowers people to engage in more satisfying, meaningful uses of their time. For example, we found at Neato Robotics that automating vacuuming resulted in parents having more free time to spend with their kids.
I'm excited about the ways robots and AI are working together to enhance our world. It's something positive to look forward to. While these two technologies have become pervasive and increasingly work together in smarter configurations, they shouldn't stoke fear. The reality is that it’s challenging to produce intricate, innovative mechanisms, to say nothing of how expensive and inefficient the fictional machines portrayed in sci-fi narratives would be. Instead, we should embrace these two technologies working ever-more closely together, for smart robots are significantly improving, not threatening, us and our world.