This week Elon Musk announced the plans to build a humanoid robot – the “Tesla Bot,”. Leaving us in suspense as to what is the exact purpose of this development, we will have to wait and see.
Boston Dynamics, arguably the most advanced robotics company on the planet, was recently acquired by Hyundai. Such robots make us think a lot about daily life use cases. And don’t forget the funny (but ever so advanced) Sophia by Hanson Robotics, expert in facial impressions. Can we know the possibilities beyond that? Only time will tell…
So, the question is, why would humans want to design robots in their likeness? Humans are extremely limited in our capabilities. We are carrying weight, our arms and legs are on a fixed hinge-system, we run fast or slow depending on our biology, we reach high depending on our diverse abilities, etc. All these can be performed by special-design equipment, such as forklifts, automated warehouses, lifts, even wheelbarrows or trucks…
A robot’s purpose should be to deliver a certain function and a resulting value. Let’s consider the forklift as a notable example. An AGV (Autonomous guided vehicle) is doing a certain job. A welding or painting robotic arm is fulfilling an especially important job, otherwise to be carried out by people, inhaling toxic gases and heavy duties.
For those among us who have watched Westworld, you know exactly what I mean. Humanoid robots, especially if we try to make them look like humans, may be enslaved by us for various purposes, most of them not very meaningful or valuable.
Why would we “reinvent the wheel” in the first place, only to make the wheel look like us, with all our human limitations?
Designing and engineering humanoid robots are great for developing sensors, actuators, joints, computer vision, fast reactions, balancing, etc. But mimicking humans is another story. A strange and even dangerous story, not limited to science fiction, but already in real life. We treat delivery people almost like non-human delivery robots, the same with cashiers, or call centre agents. Imagine what we would do to humanoids…
Markets evolve based on the demand of the people. The best example of this when it comes to the humanoid robot market are, unfortunately, are dolls designed for sexual fulfilment i.e., sex robots. There are a few academics researching this area. Doctor David Levy is well-known for his book, Love and Sex with Robots, and the conference he runs under the same name. Why do we have such devices? People are demanding and paying for them.
There was a Black Mirror episode called, “Be Right Back.” This science fiction scenario very nicely illustrates what a robot is, how we interact with it, and the huge gaps between an artificial device and a real living being. Even our little pets at home are likely smarter, more intimate, and more unpredictable than any robotic pet, exemplified by the new Xiaomi CyberDog.
We must keep a close watch on where these humanoid robots may lead us…
Non-humanoid robots, let’s call them, are on the contrary extremely useful. And that’s exactly the point. A robot is designed, engineered, built, and deployed to fulfil a meaningful task. That’s the meaning of the word itself…
Robots in Manufacturing
As mentioned above, one of the earliest and most common uses of robots are in the manufacturing industry. Robotic capabilities are especially used in the welding and painting of car parts and in the assembly line of original car makers and suppliers. What kind of robots are being used? The most mature area of use is in advanced robotic arms. These are strong, very precise, quite fast machine arms, doing the same tasks repeatedly; replacing human labour to perform heavy duties.
More recently, with the addition of artificial intelligence capabilities, robots are getting upgraded to include computer vision, optimisation, and the like, to even further optimise these kind of tasks. Sawyer, of Rethink Robotics is an extraordinarily strong example of this newer breed of robots, which learn by observing themselves for continuous self-optimisation. I still remember my late hours in the robotics lab at the Technical University in Munich coding the Kuka robotic arm to do its tasks. And the rest is history…
Also, autonomous guided vehicles are a form of robots, cruising around in the warehouse and the shopfloor to carry parts, aid human efforts, and improve productivity. Cobots are another modern form of robotic arms, both stationery and mobile. These “cobots” are aware of their environment, don’t harm co-workers, collaborating with them in close proximity, living up to their name, “Co(llaborative-ro)bots.”
Robots in Retail
AGV’s and cobots are used in the retail warehouse and supply chain as well. In retail warehouses we find another remarkably interesting category of large-scale robotic systems called hyper-connected, hyper-automated warehouses. Ocado is one incredibly special example from the UK. A similar technology has been developed by an Israeli scale-up named Fabric which super-efficiently automates micro-fulfilment centres for retail or last mile delivery, mainly grocery.
Then there are robots in the store. One is the self-checkout which is basically an automaton serving to ease the checkout process. With growing tech-savvy consumers, self-checkout has become the norm in grocery and drugstore categories in advanced economies across the globe.
Service robots are available, but not getting the traction expected. As human beings we like the social touch, therefore talking to robots in the middle of a store or mall is not quite what we are used to. In some cases, it might deliver some value, but we may need to get more used to the view and experience they provide. As you can imagine, in the Far East, especially Japan and Korea, people are much more used to big-eyed robots, cruising around in malls, restaurants, shops, museums, and beyond.
Robots in Heavy Duties
Certainly, robots should be and are partially deployed in Mining. Rio Tinto, as one of the giants, is pioneering the field of mining automation and the use of robotics. Many others are following and replicating what they are doing, with autonomous trucks, autonomous trains, drones, remotely operated vehicles, and even autonomous drills.
Another industry for heavy duty robotics is construction. With the support of robots, the way we construct buildings will change forever. On the construction site, during building activities, preparation of prefabricated components, robots are greatly improving productivity.
Interestingly, the deep ocean is ripe territory for remotely operated vehicles, ROV’s. These machines explore the underwater world, perform maintenance on ships, pipelines, and other equipment or facilities.
Hotels, airports, museums, theme parks, and similar facilities with a lot of frequent visitors make use of service robots to help guests navigate the paces, find answers to FAQs, and other simple functions. Most of these can be fulfilled with mobile apps as well.
So, when it comes to robots, it is wise to think about the feasibility and the experience of the manufacturer, before making any investments.
A few years ago, delivery robots became quite popular. But non-standard sidewalks, difficult ergonomics, and simple economics, blocked those devices from widespread usage. Starship was the most famous example of that breed of robot.
Home vacuum cleaner robots, kitchen-aids, vending machines, drones, self-driving cars, and many other devices are robots, autonomous vehicles, or remotely operated devices. All of these could and should be considered as a form of robots or robotic technologies.
With advancements in artificial intelligence, more precise sensors and actuators, faster processing power, lidar, radar, cameras, etc. robots will become better and better. They are a support system for our daily life. However, humanoid robots should be questioned, and their usage closely watched. I’m personally quite suspicious about their value.
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