How Much of Robotics Is AI?

Anything concerning robots and robotics is commonly lumped in with artificial intelligence (AI) these days, but how much of robotics is really AI? Is robotic hardware implicitly AI? Not all robots are smart robots with even a modest fraction of human-level intelligence. Should dumb robots be considered AI at all? Should robotic animals be considered AI? Industrial robots? Robotic prosthetic limbs? These and related questions will be explored in this informal paper.

Beyond this paper, these and many related issues are explored in greater depth in a much larger (but still informal) paper, Untangling the Definitions of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Intelligence, and Machine Learning. This paper is primarily an excerpt from that paper, although some new material is presented as well.

Robotics is a rather broad category, not just humanoid human-looking intelligent machines. The full range includes:

  1. Human-like intelligent robots. More the realm of science fiction for now.
  2. Human-like semi-smart machines. On the near horizon, a few here already.
  3. Human-like dumb machines. Stiff, mechanical movements. Very limited intellectual capacity.
  4. Animal-like semi-smart machines. Some examples today. More on the near horizon.
  5. Animal-like dumb machines. Stiff, mechanical movements, although getting better. Minimal function compared to comparable animals.
  6. Non-mammal machines. No intelligence required. Varying degrees of competence for motion and activity compared to comparable animals. Birds, insects, reptiles, fish.
  7. Industrial robots. Including numerical control (CNC) robotic arms. Precision motor control, but not the dexterity of true AI robots.
  8. Warehouse robots. Great for moving material over fixed, gridlike patterns.
  9. Household convenience robots. Niche functions. Precision movement. Precision sensors. Mostly heuristic rather than true, human-level intelligence.
  10. Driverless vehicles.
  11. Smart cars. Automation and AI for selected, niche functions, from anti-locking brakes and cruise control to parallel parking, lane monitoring, and collision avoidance.
  12. Prosthetic limbs. Arms, hands, legs, feet. No higher-order intellectual function, but precision motor control, sensor feedback, and end effector control (e.g., grasping with fingers.)
  13. Remotely-piloted vehicles. Including drones. Human is in the loop. Not truly autonomous.
  14. Robotic arms. For amplifying human motions and actions, or working in physically challenging environments or at a distance. Including surgery. Human in the loop. Not truly autonomous. But can require fine motor control and dexterity.

And more. But that’s a fairly comprehensive range. At least it’s representative.

To be clear, a robot possessing a significant fraction of human-level intellectual capacity would certainly fall under the umbrella of artificial intelligence. Even a fair fraction of animal-level intelligence would qualify as well.

Whether or not a robot possesses intelligence, there is so much more to robotics than intellectual capacity. Just to mimic the movement capabilities of simple animals or even insects is a lot of effort, most of it not directly associated with the kind of intellectual effort associated with the human mind.

A lot of robotics, particular those aspects related to physical structure, movement, sensors, and manipulation of real-world objects would be more appropriately referred to as artificial life (A-Life) than AI per se. In fact, robots could be designed to mimic animals such as reptiles and even insects which would not normally be considered intelligent. Robotic dogs are popular, but their intellectual capacity is minimal.

Motion, movement, and manipulation of objects in the real world is a real challenge. They require sophisticated software. They certainly qualify as artificial life, but whether to consider them AI as well is a matter of debate. The mental aspects are more likely AI (what do you wish to move, to where, and why), but the physical aspects not so much, or at least a very gray area.

A key distinction of robotics from traditional, non-robotic AI systems is the fact that the robotic system is continuously monitoring and reacting to the environment on a real-time basis.

Much of robotics revolves around sensors and mechanical motions in the real world, seeming to have very little to do with any intellectual activity per se, so one could question how much of robotics is really AI.

Alternatively, one could say that sensors, movement, and activity enable acting on intellectual interests and intentions, thus meriting coverage under the same umbrella as AI.

In addition, it can be pointed out that a lot of fine motor control requires a distinct level of processing that is more characteristic of intelligence than mere rote mechanical movement.

Reader’s choice

In summary, the reader has a choice as to how much of robotics to include under the umbrella of AI:

  1. Only those components directly involved in intellectual activity.
  2. Also sensors that provide the information needed for intellectual activity interacting with the environment.
  3. Also fine motor control and use of end effectors (e.g., fingers.) Including grasping fragile objects and hand-eye coordination.
  4. Also any movement which enables pursuit of intellectual interests and intentions.
  5. Any structural elements or resource management needed to support the other elements of a robotic system.
  6. Any other supporting components, subsystems, or infrastructure needed to support the other elements of a robotic system.
  7. All components of a robotic system, provided that the overall system has at least some minimal intellectual capacity. That’s the point of an AI system. A mindless, merely mechanical robot with no intelligence would not constitute an AI system.

In short, it’s not too much of a stretch to include virtually all of robotics under the rubric of AI — provided there is at least some element of intelligence in the system, although one may feel free to be more selective in specialized contexts.

The section of the Untangling paper entitled Artificial Life (A-Life) also has some interesting insight on this matter.

Robotic prosthetics

How to categorize robotic prosthetic limbs is any interesting edge case.

Since a limb, even for a sapient creature such as a human, has no direct role in intellectual activity it’s quite a stretch to call it AI by itself.

But when a robotic prosthetic limb is attached to a (presumably) human body, it acts as if it were a real limb.

Since movement, positioning, fine motor control, end effector control (e.g., use of fingers), touch, pushing, hitting, kicking, grasping, and carrying are activities peripherally related to activities that result from intellectual activity it is not too much of a stretch to associate them with that intellectual activity, at least indirectly.

This makes it a fielder’s choice whether you want to categorize robotic prosthetic limbs as AI per se.

Subsidiary mechanical and electrical activities that are needed to support the intellectual intentions of the attached body could be considered at least tangential to the intentional intellectual activity.

For the purposes of this paper, it is reasonably fair to conclude that robotic prosthetic limbs could qualify as AI. Unless they are particularly simplistic and very limited in their function and reaction to stimulus.

They could be considered AI at least to the extent they they contain and depend on some sort of embedded computer chip that participates in the interaction between sensors and fine motor control.

How intelligent is your robot?

Intelligence of machines is rather limited today, so we haven’t had to fully grapple with measurement of machine intelligence, but one can usually get a quick sense of how intelligent an AI system or robot at least appears to be.

The point here is simply that if the robot is grossly lacking any significant sense of intelligence, then it is questionable whether it could be considered AI.

On the flip side, if the robot has some interesting fraction of human level intelligence, it would then qualify as AI.

There are really two distinct categories of judging intelligence:

  1. Communication skills. Carrying on a conversation in natural language. The Turing Test.
  2. Intelligent behavior. Able to competently and adaptively carry out tasks which would otherwise require human (or animal) intelligence, without any human intervention required. Autonomous behavior.

What is intelligence?

Intelligence is discussed at much greater depth in the Untangling the Definitions of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Intelligence, and Machine Learning paper.

A more succinct discussion can be found in the What Is AI (Artificial Intelligence)? paper.

Just to quickly summarize, there are a variety of levels of intelligence and a variety of elements of intelligence. Elements include:

  1. Perception. The senses or sensors. Forming a raw impression of something in the real world around us.
  2. Attention. What to focus on.
  3. Recognition. Identifying what is being perceived.
  4. Communication. Conveying information or knowledge between two or more intelligent entities.
  5. Processing. Thinking. Working with perceptions and memories.
  6. Memory. Remember and recall.
  7. Learning. Acquisition of knowledge and know-how.
  8. Analysis. Digesting and breaking down more complex matters.
  9. Speculation, imagination, and creativity.
  10. Synthesis. Putting simpler matters together into a more complex whole.
  11. Reasoning. Logic and identifying cause and effect, consequences and preconditions.
  12. Following rules. From recipes to instructions to laws and ethical guidelines.
  13. Applying heuristics. Shortcuts that provide most of the benefit for a fraction of the mental effort.
  14. Intuitive leaps.
  15. Mathematics. Calculation, solving problems, developing models, proving theorems.
  16. Decision. What to do. Choosing between alternatives.
  17. Planning.
  18. Volition. Will. Deciding to act. Development of intentions. When to act.
  19. Movement. To aid perception or prepare for action. Includes motor control and coordination. Also movement for its own sake, as in communication, exercise, self-defense, entertainment, dance, performance, and recreation.
  20. Behavior. Carrying out intentions. Action guided by intellectual activity. May also be guided by non-intellectual drives and instincts.

That full list is way too much to expect from robots at this juncture, but even a very modest fraction of those elements could still yield a robot that can act reasonably intelligently, by today’s standards.

Dumb robots

Beyond intelligent and seemingly smart robots and relatively dumb robotic prosthetic limbs, we also have relatively dumb robots.

For our purposes here, a dumb robot is simply one that does not have any interesting degree of intelligence or intellectual capacity.

It’s a fielder’s choice whether robots designed to mimic animals should be considered intelligence since they may or may not indeed possess the ability to mimic animal intelligence.

For our purposes here, a robot capable of mimicking some significant degree of animal intelligence could be considered under the category of AI.

For example, if the robot can recognize, interact with, or navigate around objects, they could indeed be considered a reasonable subset of intelligence.

But if the robot’s movements and actions are strictly pre-programmed, rote, and mechanical, that would not seem sufficient to warrant being considered AI.

A numerical control (CNC) robotic arm would not seem to qualify as AI by itself.

But if a CNC robotic arm had additional features, such as recognizing different types of objects or being able to deftly manipulate fragile objects, the door to characterization as AI would be opened. It would still all depend. It’s a gray area. But absent such advanced features, a CNC robotic arm would not seem to qualify as AI.

That said, if the same CNC robotic arm could be used in different applications and deployments as either a dumb, rote, mechanical arm or alternatively as a smart, human-like hand, then the underlying robotic arm/hand technology could credibly be considered AI since it is enabling the AI application of the technology.

In short, in general, a dumb robot is not AI per se, but the addition of even a single AI-related function can indeed suddenly make an otherwise dumb robot or component of robot technology a candidate for being considered AI.

That said, it isn’t always possible for a mere mortal to judge what is happening under the hood of a robot. Sometimes even sophisticated intelligence can seem trivial, while at other times a function that seems fairly intelligent may be based on simple, mechanical, heuristic technology that doesn’t have any true AI at all.

In short, we are forced to accept the twin propositions that sometimes a dumb machine will seem smart and sometimes a smart machine will seem dumb.

The reality is simply that if the robot seems smart it will be considered AI, and if the robot seems dumb it will be considered to not be AI.

Is it simply automation or is intelligence required?

The whole point of a robot is to accomplish some task that would otherwise require the involvement of a person (or possibly an animal.) The question is whether that involvement was simply a rote, mechanical, manual task or requires something approximating human-level intelligence (or animal intelligence, at a minimum.)

A traditional industrial robot or even a modern warehouse robot doesn’t require any obvious intelligence. Some specific instances may, but not as a general proposition.

But if the tasks require fine motor control, dexterity, handling of fragile objects, or visual recognition of objects, the line is being crossed from mere automation to intelligence.

A robotic vacuum cleaner is in the gray zone, not having any dramatic level of intelligence, but the ability to detect and navigate around obstacles suggests at least a borderline level of intelligence.

A lot of judgment will still be required and a lot of cases will still amount to a fielder’s choice whether the robot in question amounts to only mere automation of manual tasks or amounts to at least minimal intelligence.

Computer vision

Any machine which has a video camera with with software to detect and identify objects or scenes and autonomously taking action based on what it detects and identifies is a decent candidate for being classified as AI.

Robotic sonar

Any machine which has a sonar sensor that can be used to detect objects using sound waves and then take action based on location and distance of objects is a decent candidate for being classified as AI.

Some applications may be too simple to consider AI, but to the degree that a significant level of processing is performed using the sonar data the AI label would be more warranted.

Specialized hardware

Generally speaking, most hardware components would not be considered AI, but an exception might be appropriate for any components which were specially designed to facilitate robotic applications, especially when these specialized components fairly directly facilitate intelligence.

This could include, for example:

  1. Better sensors which provide the robot’s mind with more refined sensory data.
  2. Better motors and motor controls, such as facilitating finer motor control for greater dexterity and handling of fragile objects.
  3. Lighter weight and stronger structural materials which permit more intelligent motion.
  4. More efficient or cheaper batteries and motors which facilitate more adventurous activity.
  5. Customized processor, memory, and control chips which enable greater intellectual activity.
  6. Smaller, cheaper, and more efficient processor, memory and control chips that enable design, construction, and operation of robots that might be too expensive or unwieldy with off the shelf electronic components.

Artificial life (A-Life)

Robots are a specialized category of a larger category called artificial life or A-Life. The categories within A-Life are:

  1. Mechanical robots. Electromechanical, actually.
  2. Artificial biological lifeforms. Genetically engineered. May or may not closely follow natural genetic lifeforms. May or may not closely follow natural carbon-based lifeforms. This area is also known as synthetic life.
  3. Virtual reality worlds. No physical manifestation. Don’t even have to follow the laws of physics or deal with resource limitations of the real world.

Most of the questions and points made in this paper about robotics would apply to the full category of A-Life.

A-Life is generally considered a branch of AI, at least to the extent that concerns about the role of intelligence are considered.

Generally, the point of A-Life is to support intelligent activity that merely happens to be artificial in some sense.

For more on A-Life, see the Artificial Life (A-Life) section in the Untangling the Definitions of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Intelligence, and Machine Learning paper.

Biologically inspired technology

Leading edge robotics and A-Life research and development is pursuing approaches that are inspired by natural biological systems.

Of course, even a two-legged walking robot with two arms, two hands, and two eyes can be said to be biologically inspired.

The main thrust of bio-inspired technology is to look at, model, or mimic the muscles, cells, materials, structures, and control systems of natural biological systems.

And the mind as well, both the human mind and the minds or at least brains of lesser animals.

And social systems and social behavior of the natural biological world as well.

More properly, bio-inspired technology should be associated with the larger A-Life category (artificial life), of which robotics (mechanical or electromechanical robots) is only one part.

Generally, any technology which was specially designed to mimic or model biological systems of the natural world would get a free pass to be considered under the category of A-life. Whether it should also be categorized as AI would depend on the degree to which it is either directly involved with intelligence (intellectual activity) or aids or facilitates intellectual activity or carrying out actions that resulted from intellectual activity. And of course there is plenty of room for discretion as to where to draw the line on how closely related the bio-inspired activity is to any intellectual activity.

Bio-inspired technology might be referred to using such terms as:

  • Biologically inspired robotics or bio-inspired robotics
  • Biologically inspired technology or bio-inspired technology
  • Biologically inspired engineering or bio-inspired engineering
  • Biologically inspired computing or bio-inspired computing
  • Biologically inspired systems or bio-inspired systems
  • Biologically inspired design or bio-inspired design
  • Biologically inspired cognitive architectures or bio-inspired cognitive architectures
  • Biologically inspired vision systems or bio-inspired vision systems
  • Biologically inspired computer vision or bio-inspired computer vision
  • Biologically inspired products or bio-inspired products
  • Biologically inspired product design or bio-inspired product design
  • Biologically inspired microrobots or bio-inspired microrobots
  • Biologically inspired algorithms or bio-inspired algorithms
  • Biologically inspired materials or bio-inspired materials
  • Biologically inspired learning or bio-inspired learning
  • Biologically inspired artificial intelligence or bio-inspired artificial intelligence
  • Biologically inspired intelligence or bio-inspired intelligence


To be categorized as AI, the robotic technology would need to apply to at least one of:

  1. Contains embedded intelligence (intellectual capacity) of its own.
  2. Provides fine motor control, under the control of an intelligent entity.
  3. Provides gross movement or positioning, under the control of an intelligent entity, to enable the intelligent entity to observe the environment or act on its intellectual intentions and plans.
  4. Provides sensor input to an intelligent entity to inform its intellectual activities. Including vision, sound, and touch.
  5. Provides end effector function (e.g., fingers grasping), under the control of an intelligent entity.
  6. Provides dexterity, under control of an intelligent entity.
  7. Provides supporting or enabling infrastructure for any of the above.
  8. Is a critical component needed to construct an intelligent robot.
  9. Is a component which was specially designed for robotic applications — and facilitates intelligence of the robot.
  10. Is the component or system clearly under the A-Life (artificial life) umbrella?
  11. Is the component or system clearly bio-inspired?

Even then, some amount of judgment is required. For example:

  1. Is a dumb video camera AI?
  2. Is a pair of pliers AI?
  3. Is a battery AI?
  4. Is an electrical outlet AI?
  5. Is a power supply AI?
  6. Is a piece of wire AI?
  7. Is a bolt AI?
  8. Is a wheel, roller, or pulley AI?
  9. Is a standard computer chip or memory chip AI?

Generally, the answer is that there needs to be a fairly obvious, direct, or at least not too indirect connection between the technology in question and at least some sort of intellectual activity.


Conceptually, one could render a score for how close a given piece of technology comes to being considered AI.

Basic, off the shelf hardware components, like bolts, batteries, and pieces of metal would get a score of zero.

A fully-functional, human-like robot including natural language functions comparable to an intelligent digital assistant would get a score of 100%.

Or even a dog-like robot could score near 100% if its function were close enough to that of a real dog.

A relatively dumb robotic prosthetic limb might get a score down near 25%, while a more advanced limb with dexterity and smooth movement that is easily controlled by the wearer might score 50% or even 75% or higher.

This idea of scoring hasn’t been pursued any deeper, to the best of my knowledge, but seems promising.


The mere labeling of a technology as robotic does not immediately inform us as to whether the technology should be categorized as AI.

In short, if the technology directly results in intelligent behavior, directly informs such behavior, or fairly directly enables such behavior, then it seems fair to consider it under the umbrella of AI.

For more of my writings on artificial intelligence, see List of My Artificial Intelligence (AI) Papers.

Freelance Consultant