Artificial Intelligence and Robotics: A Guide for Parents

As parents, we all want to help our children understand, adopt and sometimes master the new technologies that surround them. In the last few years, few technologies have generated as much buzz (news reports, etc.) as Artificial Intelligence and Robotics. Both of these provide wonderful learning opportunities for children, but they are actually very different things.

For many people, their first introduction to these concepts is in a movie where an intelligent robot interacts with a human (examples — Star Wars, WALL-E, Westworld, Big Hero 6, etc. ). Since these examples meld Artificial Intelligence and Robotics together, it can create confusion as to which is which in a learning context. Generally, the part that mimics human interaction or makes decisions is Artificial Intelligence, and the part that performs physical tasks or drives hardware is Robotics.

For example, say that a human verbally asks a robot to go to another room and pick up a cup, saying — “Robot, please get me a cup from the kitchen”. The figure below shows you how AI and Robotics fit into this task.

  • The Artificial Intelligence is the software that talks to the human, understands his/her voice, understands what he/she asking for, knows where the kitchen is, knows where it currently is, and maps a route from its current location to the kitchen and the cup.

Artificial Intelligence is about creating computer programs that can do things that human brains usually do. Examples are recognizing images, understanding text, finding patterns in examples, mapping solutions to problems, creating game strategies, etc. Artificial Intelligence programs usually start by Training (or Learning), and then apply the learning to solve new problems, or Predict what is going to happen next.

Robotics is about controlling physical devices (or Robots). These devices are usually connected to some kind of computer program, and by changing the program, you can change the way the device moves, its speed of movement, move it in special patterns like following a maze, etc. Robotics requires that you understand physics and hardware mechanics such as sensors and actuators.

Another example — in a car scenario, the production line that builds the physical car is Robotics. The software inside the car that makes it self driving is Artificial Intelligence. Again, the key distinction is — Robotics is most frequently used to automate tasks while Artificial Intelligence is most frequently used to make decisions.

In this blog post, we describe in more detail what each topic is, what it involves, and answer various questions parents may have when deciding to help their kids do activities in either or both of these areas.

What do Artificial Intelligence and Robotics cover besides programming?

Programming is about using various languages (programming languages) to write computer programs to perform any kind of tasks, which can include artificial intelligence types of tasks like learning and predicting, or robotics tasks like making a robot raise its arm or move a wheel. With programming, you can also get a computer to do pretty much anything that you describe as a set of steps, like write games, do math, etc.

Artificial Intelligence is about ways that computers can use to learn, somewhat similar to what humans do in learning from examples. You can do Artificial Intelligence without programming, but you can also write programs to build new AI methods, or interact with AI methods. For example — you can train an AI method to understand text and how you are feeling, and then use programming to build a chatbot out of this AI method. Besides programming, artificial intelligence can help you learn about logic, how decisions can be made, about math, and, most importantly, about how to find patterns in examples.

Examples of what you can do with Artificial Intelligence:

  • You can build a personal digital assistant like Alexa who can answer questions and play music for you.

Robotics is where physical devices can meet programming. It is possible to do Robotics with very simple programs, but also build very advanced programs that can make robots do complex tasks like fight other robots. Robotics shows you how to control a device, and you can learn concepts like physics, weight, laws of motion etc.

Examples of what you can do with Robotics:

  • You can build a robot that can move around in a room and change direction when it hits a wall or a piece of furniture.

Artificial Intelligence and Robotics both benefit from programming. The more you can program, the fancier the things that you can do with both Artificial Intelligence and Robotics. In both cases, programming is a means to an end — but the end is different. The programs you write in Artificial Intelligence usually involve training or tuning methods to detect patterns, and as such are focused more on math. Programs you write in Robotics are usually about how to connect to a physical device. While these two programs can be used together in some cases, the two sets of programs usually have nothing to do with each other — i.e. learning how to write one will not help you write the other.

How do these help each other?

You can do Artificial Intelligence without Robotics (think Netflix recommendations or Auto-Correct on your phone). You can also do Robotics without Artificial Intelligence (think robot in a manufacturing line or a remote controlled crane). Artificial Intelligence and Robotics can also be used together and the combination can be very powerful. With Artificial Intelligence, you can build a smart robot that can not just move around but also learn from the inputs that it gets. For example, if going in one direction causes it to repeatedly hit a wall, it can avoid moving in that direction in the future.

Can kids compete and show off their sharpened skills?

Yes — both of these have competitions where kids can showcase their sharpened skills.

Some examples of AI competitions:

  • Artificial Intelligence competitions often involve using AI to solve a problem. For example, some competitions ask kids and families to solve a community problem by building an app that uses AI.

Some examples of Robotics competitions

  • Robotics competitions often involve competitions between the robots themselves, where the physical design of the robot becomes important.

What can they do at home?

Students can do projects at home in both areas to improve their skills. To do AI at home, students typically need a laptop computer and sometimes access to cloud AI programs (programs they can access over the internet). For Robotics, students typically need a laptop computer and at least one robotics kit (a hardware platform that they can use).

How do they progress?

In both cases, the students can progress as their programming and math knowledge improves. In the case of Artificial Intelligence, if the student uses a platform like, they can progress even up to PhD level on the same platform since the software is extensible. For Robotics, as students advance they usually need to buy more sophisticated hardware kits.

Key Takeaways

AI and Robotics are both powerful technology areas.

  • Both AI and Robotics can be done with minimal programming but both get better if you can do some programming, and get even better if you are good at programming. You can understand AI better when you learn more math, and you can understand Robotics better if you learn more physics, but both have concepts beyond what is covered in basic math or basic physics.


For more information, you can also look at these resources:

I am a software engineer by training and an expert in artificial intelligence. I am also a mom! I teach coding and tech to kids from grades 4-12.