AI and Robots

In pop-culture, a robot is an intelligent humanoid machine. And since most of us are more familiar with pop-culture robots than with actual robots, the pop-culture vision tends to be the dominant one.

When someone stumble upon a robot, it is expected to be as intelligent as it’s human-like. The more human-like, the more intelligent it has to be. This level of expectation is unseen on devices that don’t look like humans at all.

We could expect that with the rise of smart assistant like Alexa or Google Home, the general understanding of the difference between software and hardware would progress, but it just doesn’t seem to work with social robots.


What is an AI

AI is a software thing. Wikipedia classifies it as a part of computer science in its definition. Without diving into technical details, artificial intelligence is used to tackle two main goals:

> Automating tasks. We are talking about very specific tasks. You can think about optical character recognition systems allowing to digitalize a hand-written document for example.

> Using data and statistics to simulate human intelligence. There goes all the buzzy words you can read at the moment like deep learning, unsupervised learning). Here again, we talk about very specific tasks: playing Go, recognizing images or predicting stock prices. The AI system  that plays Go can’t predict stock prices or recognize images. It’s not a “one size fits all” kind of thing.

AI usages keep growing. We already mentioned digital assistant but you also have AI in video games, in fraud detection or in advertising to name a few. AI is in Facebook recognizing faces on pictures. AI is soon to be everywhere; with or without embodiment or embedment. AI can just be running in the background, and you never get to really “see” it do something.


What is a robot

On the other hand, a robot is a machine, a physical device. A robot is a machine that can be programmed to perform certain actions in an autonomous or semi-autonomous way. It does not necessarily look like a human but when they do we usually talk about humanoids.An automatic door is a robot. Based on the input from a censor detecting a presence, it is going to use actuators to open the door for the person. There is not a lot of intelligence and reasoning involved, but it’s a robot.

Thinking about robots in factories, on assembly lines is maybe the best way to understand what is a robot. They are machine performing precise and repetitive tasks by the use of sensors and actuators.

In its general understand, the word is used to refer to a humanoid, meaning the machine somehow looks like a human or has human characteristics (think eyes for instance). The focus is on the shape of the machine.


Merging AI and robotics


One of the first product released for the general public merging AI and robotics is probably the Roomba. We agree, it does not look humanoid but it’s a robot. The AI part is in the navigation, making sure the robot takes care correctly of the designated area it is in charge of. You don’t see the AI at work, but you see and appreciate the result: the place is clean.

In the very same way, with Heasy, we use AI for the navigation. We want Heasy to navigate autonomously and dynamically avoid obstacles, but we also want it to take advantage of the data coming from the camera to stay in busy areas to maximize interaction opportunities.

A robot that can talk is also an AI-enabled robot. AI is used at least for turning sound into text (speech-to-text engine) and then to process this text and provide an answer (think about chatbots here). It is interesting to notice that thanks to the internet and all the technologies built around it (networks, wireless, APIs, etc.), the only thing that needs to happen on the robot is listening to the voice through a microphone. All the rest – text-to-speech and reasoning – can be done remotely, in the cloud.

It is not something that pop culture really anticipated. The fantasy was that just like the robot would have an autonomous body, it would have an autonomous “mind” embodied.

Social robots are AI-augmented robots. They are hardware plus software. Don’t be impressed when you see a robot and don’t just judge by the look. Terminator is not for tomorrow. The hardware is just not there yet, and the software neither.

If they won’t live in our houses in the years to come, social robots are already spreading around us in malls, stations or offices. Companies start understanding that robots can be used as another kind of interface to get in touch with customers or employees.