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Ask Dr. Universe: Robots use complex programming languages built on binary code

A robotic arm lifts plants being grown at a robotic indoor farm in San Carlos, Calif., in 2018. Programmers must teach robots how to do their tasks using complex programming languages.  (Eric Risberg/Associated Press)
A robotic arm lifts plants being grown at a robotic indoor farm in San Carlos, Calif., in 2018. Programmers must teach robots how to do their tasks using complex programming languages. (Eric Risberg/Associated Press)
Washington State University

Washington State University

Dr. Universe: Do robots have their own language? And is there a translator? – Hank, 8, Virginia

Dear Hank,

Robots do have their own language – and yes, there’s a translator.

That’s what I found out from my friend Manoj Karkee, an engineer at Washington State University who also is really curious about robots.

Karkee and his team work on lots of robots that help farmers do important jobs. They can program robots to do different tasks such as pick apples or pull weeds.

Robots are machines that use computer languages to work. But this language is different than the one humans use.

The English language, for example, is made up of more than 100,000 words, which are made up of just 26 building blocks called letters. Robot languages are built on just two basic building blocks.

“In a very basic form, computers, and for that matter robots, run with ones and zeroes,” Karkee said.

You might think of these ones and zeroes kind of like a light switch. The ones and zeroes help computers know how to send a current of electricity through robots or other electronics.

Zero stands for “off.” One stands for “on.” It’s all part of the binary system. In binary, for example, the number 1 is “0001” and the number 2 is “0010” and the number 3 is “0011.”

The combination of ones and zeroes also can represent letters to form words like “Hi.” The capital letter “H,” for example, is written as 01001000 in binary. The lowercase letter “I” is written as “01101001.” But there’s a bit of a catch.

“These days when we have to tell robots to do something, we don’t provide ones and zeroes,” Karkee said. “We provide a set of instructions in a language that is not like our human language but that humans can understand.”

Lots of different computer scientists throughout human history have worked with those ones and zeroes to build more complex robot languages. These are called programming languages. Karkee and his team had to create a specific program, for example, to help the robots pick apples.

Karkee said that creating robot and computer programs requires a lot of math. So, if you want to program or build robots one day, it is important to practice those math skills.

But the hard work pays off, especially when you get to build something new and amazing that can help people do important things. Humans have programmed some robots to speak in human languages. Other people have programmed robots to translate human languages.

“Robots and other computer programs can act as a translator of human language. There are intelligent programs that can translate English into Spanish or Spanish to Nepali,” he said.

Of course, it took the work of programmers to tell the robots how to do that task in the first place.

Who knows, maybe one day you will help us create new languages for robots or come up with ideas to change our world? You might just become a translator yourself – connecting humans to the world of robotics.


Dr. Universe

Dr. Universe is a project from Washington State University. Submit a question at

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