Let’s talk about humanoids for a minute, shall we? Why do so many roboticists insist on making robots that look like us? Get ready to see many more humanoid robots.
The topic is highly regarded for a number of reasons. First – and most prominent – is the fact that Tesla plans to unveil a version of Optimus (aka Tesla Bot) that isn’t just a person in spandex. Tesla describes the project as follows:
Develop the next generation of automation, including a general purpose two-pedal humanoid robot capable of performing tasks that are unsafe, repetitive or boring. We are looking for mechanical, electrical, control and software engineers to help us leverage our AI expertise beyond our fleet.
Musk, announcing that a prototype could be ready as early as next year, has drawn criticism from the robotics community for the ambitious — if not impossible — project. The robot’s upcoming debut will have to accomplish more than just walking up on stage to silence the skeptics. The biggest question hovering over all of this is: if it’s not impossible, why haven’t some smart and well-funded minds delivered? It is certainly not for lack of trying.
The other reason it’s top of mind is our story from earlier this morning, which broke the news of Figure’s self-funded efforts to introduce its own humanoid courtesy of an impressive staff of former Apple, Tesla, Boston Dynamics – and Google employees. Since the project has yet to unveil a product — or, for that matter, the company — that means things are way, way too early to judge the offering. The above question still stands.
A little easier to answer is the question of why a humanoid? It’s something I’ve discussed with a number of roboticists over the years. Our brains are wired to see robots as mechanical versions of ourselves. Decades of science fiction have made this happen. But a roboticist’s approach is – more often than not – a pragmatic one. The right form factor for the track is a good rule of thumb. By going further, you introduce more potential points of failure while increasing the price tag.
There’s a reason the world’s most popular consumer robot is a hockey puck that vacuums. It is designed to do one specific task well (multigenerational refinement) in the form best suited to the task. Introducing some degree of human-like features (a la Amazon’s Astro) would help to personify the robot and perhaps allow users to form an emotional bond with the thing, but it’s not necessary. And iRobot has a hard enough time delivering suggested retail prices under $1,000.
However, the counter-argument is convincing in itself. A few years ago, I spoke to part of the team testing NASA’s bipedal robot, Valkyrie. As they point out, people tend to shape their world around them. We build buildings and streets to our own evolutionary specifications, so a robot designed to navigate those spaces will end up looking something like us. Automation is the most sincere form of flattery.
We are closely monitoring this space.
Speaking of humanoids, it seems that SoftBank Robotics Europe’s journey has finally come to an end. After the acquisition in 2015, Aldebaran finally struggled when it turned away from the NAO research robot to Pepper. The latter was based on the premise that a friendly face on top of a robot with limited functionality could help drive traffic to businesses.
After reports that it was halting production of Pepper, SoftBank eventually sold the company to German company United Robotics Group in the summer. This week, URG announced it would return the brand to its original name, while working to “improve our offerings for existing products such as Pepper and Nao”. SoftBank, meanwhile, remains a shareholder.
Meanwhile, Nvidia released a slew of product news this week, including several items related to the robotic platform’s efforts. In particular, CEO Jensen Huang has described the chipmaker’s push to bring its Isaac Sim robot simulator to the cloud, via the AWS RoboMaker service. NVIDIA Notes:
With Isaac Sim in the cloud, roboticists can generate large data sets from physically accurate sensor simulations to train the AI-based perception models on their robots. The synthetic data generated in these simulations improve model performance and provide training data that often cannot be collected in the real world.
More news from the “general” robotics front as Apptronik discusses its upcoming Apollo robot. The Austin-based company has already struck a deal to bring its own humanoid to NASA.
“Traditional robots are really designed to do highly repeatable things in structured environments,” co-founder and CEO Jeff Cardenas tells todaybusinessupdates.com. “What we’ve really focused on is: how do we build robots that can operate in highly variable dynamic environments? With the humanoid robot, it’s real, how can we build a robot made by humans, for humans, to work in spaces designed for humans?”
Unsurprisingly, the company is positioning the system as a platform on which developers can build an assortment of different functionalities. Apptronik says it hopes to show off Apollo at next year’s SXSW in his hometown of Austin.
More big news on tiny robots this week, as Devin covers Cornell University’s ant bots, which are “basically about the size of an ant to an ant,” if you can wrap your brain around them. The systems use a photovoltaic cell for power and microscopic circuits to move the tiny legs. The possible applications are the standard variant mentioned for this way of extra small robots.
Applications can range from environmental clean-up and monitoring to targeted drug delivery, cell monitoring or stimulation, and microscopic surgery. In all of these applications, robots with built-in control systems for sensing and responding to their environments and working autonomously offer a remarkable advantage, setting the stage for ubiquitous smart microscopic robots with the capacity for positive outcomes in the world around us.
Less small, but very funny is this robot from KEYi Tech, which, as I write this, is about to cross $1 million on Kickstarter with over a month to go. The comparisons between Loona and Anki’s Cozmo robot are unavoidable, but the ClicBot creator really did an incredible job on the robot’s expressions and locomotion. As I mentioned in my article on Anki, I asked the company to send me raw video to confirm that it is not a render.
Finally for the week, $5 million in funding is going to Civ Robotics. The Bay Area-based company has built an autonomous robot for surveying construction sites. Says co-founder and CEO, Tom Yeshurun:
The construction industry faces challenges in terms of staffing shortages and CivDot ensures efficiency and safety at work while moving projects forward from the start. Bechtel, among others a leader in the EPC industry, has already used CivDots for surveying. Today’s financing shows the opportunity that lies ahead as a company to build the world around us.
The seed round was led by ff Venture Capital and Alley Robotics Ventures and includes Trimble Ventures. So many companies, so little time.
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