This glossary has been created by euRobotics. It’s intended for a non-specialist audience and will appear on the euRobotics website. Opinions and definitions differ but we gave it a lot of thought and after plenty of debate, these are the words we chose. We want to give our own members a first glimpse so you can see how we will explain robots and robotics in a simple form to the general public. See what you think.
Welcome to the language of robots! This short Glossary will guide you through some of the common words we use when we speak about robots, plus a few other terms that people sometimes think are connected with the world of robots. Who’s this for? You, and everyone with an interest in robots.
Robotics is one of the key technologies which will shape our future. But it covers a lot of things, so it’s a good idea to clear up any misunderstandings and give some clear definitions. That’s the purpose of this Glossary. We hope you find it informative.
A robot is a physical machine which carries out tasks in the physical world. There are a lot of robots in the world and they take many different forms. But whatever an individual robot does, however it looks, it will always have these features – it’s physical, it has a control system, it interacts with the world and it performs a task. That’s what a robot is.
What do you see when you think of a robot? A machine in a car assembly plant perhaps, maybe a flying drone, or even something from a film. A word of caution – there’s a huge gap between science fiction and present reality. But even beyond the imagined world, robots are diverse and take very different forms. They may be on the ground, like driverless cars (yes, they’re robots) in the sea (unmanned surface or underwater vehicles), in the air (we’ve mentioned drones), in industry (robots have been building cars for many years), medicine, assisted living and many other domains. And there are more and more robots in use every year.
Some robots use software and artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor what’s around them and navigate their way around to complete their task.
So robots are always physical machines (not purely software, as we’ll explain). They operate and perform tasks in the physical world. And they have to deal with the features of the physical world – forces, friction, energy, obstacles – like humans have to every time we lift a box, ride a bike or take the bus. The physical world can be unpredictable, so robots have to be designed and built to operate in this unpredictable world.
Robotics is the field of science and manufacturing that develops robots. As we know, these are physical machines that operate within the physical world, move in it and interact with it to perform a task. Sometimes they operate under a lot of human control and sometimes with less guidance, as is necessary to carry out their task. The physical world can be unpredictable, so interacting with it is a lot more complex than we might imagine. It’s full of people, surfaces, objects and movement. This all gives robots – and the people who create them – a lot of variation to deal with. Robots have to operate in this unpredictable world and roboticists have to equip them to perform in it successfully.
In short, robotics is a complex challenge that combines sensing, motion and interaction with learning, reasoning and knowledge to make a physical machine that we can rely on to do what we expect it to do. That helps make robotics a fascinating field for the people who choose to work in robotics for their career.
So that’s robots and robotics. But that’s just the start. There are a few other related terms that you may be interested in. Stay with us if you want to read more.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) Robot
Here’s one you’ve almost definitely heard of. In its broadest sense, artificial intelligence (AI) is a field of science to understand how to recreate aspects of human intelligence artificially, through the use of technology. There’s more to AI than that, though. More generally AI is a collection of software tools that can be used anywhere to make computer systems smarter in the way they use data and knowledge. This enables these systems to make better decisions and perform their tasks most effectively. For example, Google is a search engine powered by AI software. AI may also be used in the programming of robots – and increasingly it is – but robots and AI are not the same thing.
Bots / Software Robots
A software bot is a computer program designed to automate tasks which are often repetitive, predictable and routine. A software bot can perform these more quickly and efficiently than a human could, for example in automating office paperwork. Software bots can take several different forms: for example, a chatbot, web crawler or ‘spider’ bots that browse through data on the internet, or automation bots. Unlike robots, which operate in the physical world, computer bots operate in the virtual world of data. Bots can be extremely useful and they are part of our everyday world, but they are not ‘robots’ as we understand robots.
For more on bots, see [https://www.thinkautomation.com/bots-and-ai/what-are-software-bots/]
There’s another technology which makes it possible for robots to interact effectively with the physical world and that’s called mechatronics. You may not have heard of mechatronics but it’s a vital part of what enables robots to operate. You can think of it as another kind of ‘artificial’ intelligence, because it has been designed and engineered by humans, although mechatronics is different from AI. At its simplest, mechatronics is a branch of research and development that combines electronics and mechanical engineering. An industrial robot is an example of a mechatronics system: it combines electronics, mechanics, and computing.
Machine learning is a branch of AI, based on the idea that systems can learn from data, identify patterns and make decisions with minimal human intervention. In this way, systems can learn how to improve themselves with limited or minimal human intervention.
Here’s something to help you get inside the head of a roboticist and get to grips (literally!) with these ideas you’ve been reading about robots. When you reach out to pick up a coffee cup or a wine glass you don’t think about how to shape your hand or exactly which muscles to use, nor do you consciously alter those muscles to adapt to the weight of liquid as it moves. The entire motion, from your decision to have a drink to the point when you swallow the liquid, is unconscious. And because this simple act is unconscious we take it for granted and don’t realise that it’s actually very complex. In fact it involves great physical intelligence and a high level of awareness and understanding of cups, liquids and the surrounding environment. Here’s what’s happening: our brains are sensing the environment, processing the information and communicating with our body so that we can pick up that drink efficiently. Roboticists have to understand this when they’re designing robots to do a particular job. Computers, algorithms and AI can help us make fantastically complicated mathematical calculations with a speed that would be simply beyond the capacity of human brainpower to achieve in the same time. But to date no human-built system can quite match our ability to do a simple physical task such as to pick up a drink with the level of dexterity and adaptability that we as humans can achieve. This paradox is at the heart of robotics. In fact it’s such an important thing to understand that it has a name: Moravec’s Paradox. This remains a fundamental challenge for robotics engineers.
For more on Moravec’s Paradox, Wikipedia provides a clear and simple introduction: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moravec%27s_paradox
Major breakthroughs occur when what begin as separate technologies or fields of research are combined. There is nothing new in this – the industrial revolution resulted from a combination of new materials (steel), processes (mass production) and power (steam). Physical AI is an umbrella term for the coming together of several scientific disciplines over time to help future researchers create robots with increasingly sophisticated capabilities. The vision behind Physical AI combines materials science, mechanical engineering, robotics, computer science, biology and chemistry.
Robotic Process Automation
Another term that you may see or hear is Robotic Process Automation or RPA. This is a form of business process automation technology based on bots, AI/digital workers. Again, no physical machines are involved in the sense that we mean when we talk about robots.
For more on RPA, see [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robotic_process_automation]
We’re increasingly used to ‘soft’ being used to refer to things from the digital world (software, soft copy). So you might think that Soft Robotics is another example of that, but it isn’t. Just as robots are essentially physical, so Soft Robotics is about using physically soft (or less rigid) materials when constructing robots. This is particularly important for building robots that will interact safely with humans, not just in close proximity but also inside the human body to carry out medical procedures. There are many other applications, such as using robots made partly or wholly of soft flexible materials that will allow a robot to squeeze into hazardous locations during a rescue operation.
Final thoughts (for now…)
To some people who have had no exposure to the real world of robotics, the very idea of robots may seem like the domain of science fiction and therefore unreal. At the other extreme we are frequently exposed to the dazzling fantasies of film-makers and writers whose ideas they bring to the big screen, so it’s possible for some people to imagine that robots are already capable today of things seen in the movies. Both extremes are wrong. What can robots do now? More than some may believe – but less than others may imagine. We know from the way new technology arrives in our lives that what exists only in the creative imagination today may well become part of our everyday reality at some point in future. Automated warehouses, drones, driverless cars – these already exist and we will quickly get used to having them around. Disinfectant robots that keep hospitals clean exist, too – they’ve been demonstrating their value during the Covid-19 pandemic. So robots have a positive part to play in improving life and helping human society tackle its biggest challenges.
So that’s just a brief introduction to what we mean when we talk about robots and robotics. Thanks for reading!
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