Creating a robot that combines human-like qualities with functionality has been a long-standing aspiration in the field of engineering, influenced by popular science fiction.
The recent surge in interest for artificial intelligence has led to a renewed investment frenzy in the pursuit of creating a humanoid. However, many of the current models are awkward and not functional, appearing more impressive in staged demonstrations than in practical use. Despite this, a few startups continue to persevere in their efforts.
Jonathan Hurst, co-founder and chief robot officer at Agility Robotics, explained that their goal is not to create a robot that resembles a human, but rather to develop robots that can function effectively in human environments.
Is having humanoids necessary? Hurst emphasizes that Agility’s warehouse robot Digit is focused on its human-centered functionality rather than being a humanoid, highlighting its purpose rather than its appearance.
Currently, its function is to pick up tote bins and transport them. In October, Amazon revealed plans to test Digits in their warehouses, and in September, Agility launched a factory in Oregon to produce them on a larger scale.
The head of Digit is equipped with cameras, sensors, and animated eyes, while its torso serves as its engine. It has two arms and two bird-like legs with inverted knees, similar to animals like birds, cats, and dogs that walk on their toes.
Other companies in the robot-making industry, such as Figure AI, are adopting a more strict viewpoint that only robots with human-like characteristics can efficiently function in various settings like offices, homes, and communities designed for humans. Figure AI also intends to initially focus on a basic purpose, like working in a retail warehouse, but has the goal of creating a commercial robot that can be updated and improved, similar to an iPhone, to perform various tasks as the global birth rate decreases.
Brett Adcock, CEO of Figure AI, stated that there is a high demand for these jobs due to a shortage of people. He believes that by having humanoids perform tasks that humans do not want to do, they can potentially sell millions or even billions of humanoids.
Currently, Adcock’s company does not possess a market-ready prototype. Established approximately one year ago and having secured millions of dollars in funding, it recently released a 38-second video showcasing Figure’s movement in its Sunnyvale, California testing facility.
Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, is working on creating a humanoid named Optimus under the company’s robotics division. However, a highly publicized live demonstration of the robot’s clumsy movements last year did not receive positive feedback from robotics experts. Another company, Apptronik, located near Tesla in Austin, Texas, seems to be making more progress with their own humanoid named Apollo, as shown in a video demonstration released in August.
The substantial amount of focus and financial resources dedicated to creating awkwardly shaped human-like machines may appear to be a futile pastime for affluent technology experts. However, for certain trailblazers in the field of legged robots, the journey itself is all about gaining knowledge.
Marc Raibert, the co-founder of Boston Dynamics, stated that their focus is not just on the design and function of their robots, but also on how individuals interact with them and the important technologies that enable their mobility, agility, perception, and intelligence. This company is most recognized for their canine-inspired robots called Spot.
Raibert stated that the progress of development is not always a linear process. Boston Dynamics, which is currently owned by car manufacturer Hyundai, conducted trials on constructing a human-like robot capable of handling boxes.
In a message sent via email, he explained that this led to the creation of a new robot that did not fully resemble a human, but shared some humanoid traits. These modifications resulted in a robot that was able to handle boxes at a faster pace, work for longer periods of time, and navigate in tight spaces, such as a truck. Therefore, research on humanoid robots proved beneficial in the development of a practical non-humanoid robot.
Several startups are prioritizing the development of human-like machines by first enhancing the dexterity of robotic fingers, rather than immediately focusing on achieving walking capabilities for their robots.
According to Geordie Rose, the co-founder and CEO of Sanctuary AI, a startup in British Columbia, Canada, walking is not the most challenging issue to address in humanoid robotics. The most difficult problem is the ability to comprehend and manipulate the world using one’s hands.
The latest addition to Sanctuary’s robotic family is Phoenix, their first bipedal model. Phoenix is capable of tasks such as stocking shelves, unloading delivery vehicles, and operating a checkout. These are initial strides towards Sanctuary’s ultimate objective of creating robots that can perceive and reason about the physical world, resembling intelligence. As with other humanoid robots, Phoenix is designed to have a charming appearance, as its interaction with real people is a crucial aspect of its purpose.
“I want us to be able to offer our labor to the global community, not just for one purpose, but for anyone who requires it,” explained Rose. “The systems must be capable of human-like thinking. We could label this as artificial general intelligence, but what I am specifically referring to is the ability for systems to comprehend speech and translate it into actions that fulfill various job responsibilities throughout the entire economy.”
Amazon was intrigued by Agility’s Digit robot due to its unique ability to both walk and move in a manner that would be beneficial for their current fleet of cart-moving robots used in their expansive warehouses.
During a media event in Seattle, Tye Brady, Amazon’s chief technologist for robotics, stated that the mobility aspect of their product is more intriguing than its physical appearance.
Currently, Digit is undergoing testing to assist in the monotonous task of collecting and relocating empty containers. However, its presence may bring back concerns about robots replacing human jobs, a scenario that Amazon is striving to avoid.
Damion Shelton, the co-founder and CEO of Agility Robotics, expressed that the robot designed for warehouses is only the initial application of a new breed of robots that he hopes will be accepted instead of feared as they are introduced into both commercial and residential settings.
“In the next 10 to 20 years, these robots will become ubiquitous,” Shelton stated. “Human-centric robots like these will continue to be integrated into human life, which is very exciting.”
Haleluya Hadero, a writer for AP, contributed to this report.