Is it necessary to have humanoid robots?
Creating a machine that combines human-like qualities with practical functionality has been a long-standing aspiration in the field of engineering, influenced by popular works of science fiction.
Although the recent hype surrounding artificial intelligence has led to increased investments in creating human-like robots, the majority of existing prototypes are awkward and not very useful, appearing more impressive in rehearsed displays than in everyday situations. However, this has not deterred a few startups from continuing their efforts in this field.
“The goal is not to begin anew and declare, ‘Hey, our aim is to create a robot that resembles a human,'” stated Jonathan Hurst, one of the co-founders and the chief robot officer at Agility Robotics. “Our objective is to design robots that are capable of functioning in human environments.”
Is it necessary to have human-like robots? Hurst stresses that Agility’s warehouse robot Digit is focused on human needs rather than trying to imitate a human, highlighting its purpose over its appearance.
Currently, it picks up tote bins and relocates them. In October, Amazon declared its plans to start experimenting with Digits in their warehouses, while Agility established a factory in Oregon in September to produce them on a large scale.
Digit is equipped with cameras, sensors, and animated eyes in its head, while its torso functions as its engine. Its body has two arms and two legs, but its legs are similar to those of birds, with knees that bend in the opposite direction, resembling digitigrade creatures like birds, cats, and dogs that walk on their toes instead of flat feet.
Other companies, such as Figure AI, are adhering to a more strict belief that only authentic human-like robots can efficiently navigate various environments, including workplaces, homes, and communities designed for humans. Figure’s initial focus will be on a basic application, such as in a retail distribution center, but they ultimately aim to create a commercial robot that can be constantly improved upon, much like an iPhone, to execute a variety of tasks and fulfill human roles as global birth rates decrease.
According to Brett Adcock, CEO of Figure AI, the demand for these jobs is huge due to a shortage of workers. He believes that if we can use humanoid robots to complete tasks that humans are reluctant to do, we could potentially sell millions or even billions of these robots.
Currently, Adcock’s company does not possess a market-ready prototype. Despite being established only a year ago and securing significant funding, the company recently released a 38-second video showcasing Figure navigating through its testing facility in Sunnyvale, California.
Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, is working on creating a humanoid robot named Optimus under the company’s robotics division. However, a highly publicized live demonstration of the robot’s clumsy movements last year failed to impress experts in the field of robotics. In comparison, Apptronik, a neighboring company based in Austin, Texas, appears to be making more progress with their humanoid robot, Apollo, as demonstrated in a video released in August.
The focus and financial resources dedicated to creating awkward human-like machines may appear to be a pointless pastime for affluent technologists. However, for certain trailblazers in the field of legged robots, the journey itself is a valuable opportunity for learning.
Marc Raibert, the co-founder of Boston Dynamics, discussed not just the design and function of their robots, but also the human response to them and the key technologies that enable mobility, dexterity, perception, and intelligence. Boston Dynamics is most recognized for its Spot robots, which resemble dogs.
According to Raibert, the process of development does not always follow a linear path. Boston Dynamics, which is now owned by car company Hyundai, conducted research on creating a humanoid robot capable of manipulating boxes.
According to an email, this resulted in the creation of a new robot that did not fully resemble a human, but shared some human-like qualities. These adjustments ultimately resulted in a robot that was more efficient at handling boxes, able to work for longer periods of time, and capable of functioning in cramped spaces like a truck. Therefore, research on human-like robots led to the development of a practical non-humanoid robot.
Some startups aiming for humanlike machines focused on improving the dexterity of robotic fingers before trying to get their robots to walk.
According to Geordie Rose, founder and CEO of Sanctuary AI in British Columbia, Canada, walking is not the most challenging issue to address in humanoid robotics. The true difficulty lies in comprehending the world and having the ability to manipulate it manually.
Phoenix, the latest addition to Sanctuary’s robot family, is a bipedal machine capable of stocking shelves, unloading delivery vehicles, and operating a checkout. These initial abilities are just the beginning of a larger goal for Rose, who hopes to eventually advance robot technology to the point where they can perceive and reason about the physical world, similar to human intelligence. Designed to be endearing like other humanoids, Phoenix’s interactions with real people are a crucial aspect of its function.
Rose stated that their goal is to offer labor to the global community, not limited to a specific purpose, but available to anyone who requires it. She believes that systems should possess human-like thinking abilities, which can be referred to as artificial general intelligence. However, her main focus is on developing systems that can comprehend speech and translate it into actions that can fulfill various job roles within the economy.