ELI5: robotics vs automation



Robotics vs automation: are the terms interchangeable? Not exactly.

There is some overlap between automation and robotics, but these terms describe two separate technologies. Though they work well together, they are different at core.

So, robotics vs automation: what do you need to know?


What is robotics?

Robotics is a field in the technology industry concerned with creating and developing robots to carry out a particular function. It’s all about creating physical robots. It’s concerned with machines and hardware. The results are tangible objects that can be controlled or programmed to serve a given function.

A key to understanding what robotics is (and thus the nuances of robotics vs automation) is understanding what a robot is. A robot is a physical machine that is programmable by a computer and that can complete actions and tasks. It can be controlled by an external device, or by embedded software.


What is automation?

On the other side of the robotics vs automation question, there’s automation.

Automation is the technology that is used to complete tasks so that humans don’t have to. These tasks are typically repetitive and frequent, and don’t require much deep analysis or understanding.

For instance, process automation software can replace manual data entry. It can generate and send emails. It can run database clean-ups based on set parameters. Essentially, automation software can perform routine tasks that don’t require creativity or strategy. This works by setting up triggers and rules for a computer or machine to follow.

Sometimes when discussing automation, the term ‘bots’ comes up. Are these the same as the ‘robots’ that are fabricated by robotics? No. In automation, the term ‘bots’ typically refers to software bots. Software bots are not physical robots. They are software ‘helpers’ that support, simulate, or even replace human work.


The key differences

So, the definitions in the robotics vs automation question set up the key differences. But looking at definitions doesn’t always make things as clear as can be.

One difference to take note of, then, is the practical use of each technology/field.

  • You use automation to enable a computer or machine to complete a task — or part of a task — for you automatically. You use it by setting up rules to follow which the computer then does unless something breaks.
  • Robotics is the creation of a machine that can complete a task or move independently of direct human control. It’s used to create machines and devices.

How it looks is another example of a key difference.

  • Robotics deals with physical robots — the creation of something you can touch; that has a physical presence. It can also involve coding and software, but only as part of the creation of a machine.
  • Automation, on the other hand, doesn’t have a physical presence of its own. Rather, it’s a virtual tool. It doesn’t have a ‘body’ of its own, but rather operates on a computer.

Similarities?

With all that laid out, there’s a question as to why the technologies get confused for each other. The answer lies in their similarities.

  1. AI

Both the field of robotics and the creation of automation technologies have a close relationship and interest in the growth of AI. For robotics, the advancements in artificial intelligence make for ‘smarter’ robots that will need to be able to accomplish more tasks. Or, be better suited to adapt within their set task.

For automation technologies, artificial intelligence is increasingly being integrated to boost the complexity and ability of the automation. AI analyses data more deeply, and then triggers the automation to complete an action based on that analysis.

  1. Both use the term ‘bots’ or ‘robots’

The language used around robotics and automation is also similar. One of the most prevalent examples is that they both focus on the idea of robots/bots. Automation is often discussed under the banner of ‘robots taking our jobs’, for instance.

  1. The overlap

A key reason that robotics vs automation is a common query is that the technologies often overlap.

Not all robots employ automation. Not all automation is loaded into physical robots. But often, the technologies produced by each field do overlap — robots created in robotics are controlled by automation software, for instance.  

It is through these similarities that the connection between the sides of robotics vs automation becomes clear.


Robotics vs automation

TL; DR: The terms ‘robotics’ and ‘automation’ are often used interchangeably. However, while there is overlap with these technologies, there are enough differences between them to make them distinct from each other.  


Useful links

Can we trust robots? Can they trust us?

A beginner’s guide to ‘IF’ statements

Robots taking our jobs: the four ‘D’s to factor in


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