Let’s talk about humanoids one minute, okay? Why do so many roboticists insist on creating robots that look like us? Prepare to see many more humanoid robots.
The subject is a priority for several reasons. First – and most important – is the fact that Tesla plans to unveil a version of Optimus (aka Tesla Bot) that isn’t just a spandex person. Tesla describes the project thus:
Develop the next generation of automation, including a general-purpose, two-pedal humanoid robot capable of performing dangerous, repetitive, or boring tasks. We are looking for Mechanical, Electrical, Controls and Software Engineers to help us leverage our AI expertise beyond our fleet of vehicles.
Musk, who announced that a prototype could be ready as soon as next year, has been criticized by the robotics community for the ambitious, if not impossible, project. The robot’s upcoming debut will have to accomplish more than just walk the stage to silence doubters. The biggest question floating above it all is this: if it’s not impossible, why haven’t many well-funded, intelligent minds succeeded? It’s certainly not for lack of trying.
The other reason he’s on the mind relates to our story from earlier this morning, which broke the news on Figure’s self-funded efforts to introduce his own humanoid thanks to an impressive team of ex-Apple, Tesla, Boston employees. Dynamics and Google. Given that the project has yet to unveil a product – or, for that matter, the company – means it’s far, far too early to judge the offering. Of course, the above question remains.
A little easier to answer is the question why a humanoid? This is something I’ve discussed with a number of roboticists over the years. Our brains are wired to view robots as mechanical versions of ourselves. Decades of science fiction have seen to that. But the approach of a roboticist is, more often than not, pragmatic. The right form factor for the job is a good rule of thumb. Going beyond that introduces more potential points of failure while increasing the price.
There’s a reason the world’s most popular consumer robot is a sucking hockey puck. It’s designed to do a specific job well (refining it over multiple generations) in the form that makes the most sense for the job. Introducing some degree of human functionality (a la Amazon’s Astro) would help personify the robot and perhaps allow users to form an emotional connection to the thing, but it’s not necessary. And iRobot has a hard enough time delivering MSRPs below $1,000.
The counter-argument, however, is persuasive in itself. A few years ago, I spoke to some members of the team testing NASA’s bipedal robot, Valkyrie. As they point out, humans tend to shape their world around them. We construct buildings and streets to our own evolving specifications, so a robot designed to navigate these spaces will eventually look like us. Automation is the sincerest form of flattery.
We will be watching this space carefully.
Speaking of humanoids, it looks like SoftBank Robotics Europe’s journey is finally over. After its acquisition in 2015, Aldebaran ultimately struggled to move away from the NAO research robot for Pepper. The latter was built on the premise that a friendly face built on top of a bot with limited functionality could help drive traffic to businesses.
Following reports that it was shutting down production of Pepper, SoftBank eventually sold the company to Germany-based United Robotics Group over the summer. This week, URG announced that 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 unloaded a whole bunch of product news this week, including several items relating to its robotics platform efforts. Specifically, CEO Jensen Huang detailed the chipmaker’s efforts to bring its Isaac Sim robotics simulator to the cloud, via the AWS RoboMaker service. NVIDIA notes:
Using Isaac Sim in the cloud, roboticists will be able to generate large datasets from physically accurate sensor simulations to train the AI-based perception models on their robots. The synthetic data generated in these simulations improves model performance and provides training data that often cannot be collected in the real world.
More news from the “general purpose” robotics front as Apptronik discusses its next Apollo robot. The Austin firm has already reached an agreement 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 told TechCrunch. “What we really focused on was how to build robots that can operate in highly variable dynamic environments? With the humanoid robot, it’s really, how can we build a robot that’s made by humans, for humans, to work in spaces that were designed for humans? »
Unsurprisingly, the company is positioning the system as a platform on which developers can build an assortment of different features. Apptronik says he hopes to show Apollo at next year’s SXSW in his hometown of Austin.
More big news on little robots this week, as Devin covers Cornell University’s Antbots, which “are actually about the size of an ant for an ant,” if you can wrap your brain around it. ‘such a thing. The systems use a photovoltaic cell for power and microscopic circuitry to move its tiny legs. Potential applications are the standard variety cited for this type of extra-small robots.
Applications range from environmental cleaning and monitoring to targeted drug delivery, cell monitoring or stimulation, and microscopic surgery. In all of these applications, robots with on-board control systems to sense and respond to their environments and operate autonomously offer a noticeable advantage, paving the way for ubiquitous intelligent microscopic robots with the capacity for positive outcomes in the world that we surrounded.
Less small, but a lot of fun, is this robot from KEYi Tech, which as I write this is about to cross the million dollar mark on Kickstarter with over a month left. Comparisons between Loona and Anki’s Cozmo robot are inescapable, but the maker of ClicBot has done a truly amazing job on the robot’s expressions and locomotions. As I mention in my Anki review, I had the company send me a raw video to confirm it was not a render.
Finally for the week, $5 million in funding is going to Civ Robotics. The Bay Area-based company built an autonomous robot to create land surveys for construction sites. Says co-founder and CEO, Tom Yeshurun:
The construction industry faces labor shortage issues, and CivDot boosts workplace efficiency and safety, while moving projects forward from the start. Already, Bechtel, a leader in the EPC industry, among a variety of others, has adopted CivDots for surveying. Today’s funding demonstrates the opportunity we have as a company to shape the world around us.
The round was led by ff Venture Capital and Alley Robotics Ventures and includes Trimble Ventures. So many adventures, so little time.
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