Humanoid Robots: The Past, Present and Future

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Sophia, Qrio, pepper, Nao, Asimo -You’re probably wondering what a lady’s name has to do with words that don’t make sense put together in a sentence.

All those (including Sophia) are names of Humanoid robots that have taken the world by storm, causing both fascination and fear.

But why fear?

Well, because they are humanoid, which is as close as a machine has ever come to a human. Considering most of these robots are first-generation humanoids, we wonder how human they can get once the clever scientists who make them spend a little more time in the lab.

This brings me to the point of this discussion: the past, present, and future of Humanoid robots.

The past

If you think humanoid robots are a 21st-century invention, think again because they are not.

The first humanoid robot ever made was not a human in the real sense, but rather it was an android. The android was created in 1839 by a French inventor named Alfred Vaucanson. It was a mechanical duck that could eat and excrete like a duck. The duck had sensors in its beak to detect food and control its mouth and tongue to catch the food. It could defecate too. Its body was covered with artificial feathers, and it had artificial wings too. This android is still displayed at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany.

W. Richards built the first humanoid robot created with human characteristics in his book “The Humanoid.” This book describes humanoids used for space exploration and even as assistants for astronauts onboard space stations.

However, the first humanoid robot that came into existence is known as “ASIMO” (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility). Honda created it in 2000. It has a height of 130 cm and weighs 66 kgs. ASIMO can run at up to 6 Km per hour and can climb stairs. It has 20 degrees of freedom in its body, including two legs, two arms, two hands, one neck and head, and one torso.

ASIMO is capable of speaking Japanese and English too.

Its body is made of aluminum alloy, steel with titanium for some parts like the neck. The sensors used in it include:

  • VCM (Voice Coil Motor) for neck movement control.
  • A touch sensor for hand control.
  • A pressure sensor for foot control.
  • An acceleration sensor for balance control.
  • Gyro sensor for posture control.
  • The batteries that power it is made up of Li-Ion rechargeable battery cells.

Later on, Honda developed a more advanced version of ASIMO called ASIMO 2, which could perform all these tasks better than its predecessor. In 2005, Honda launched another advanced model of ASIMO called ASIMO 3, which could walk up a slope with an inclination angle of up to 30 degrees.

Another advanced robotic invention is the Kodomoroid robot. Toshiba developed this robot in 2002. It is capable of walking like humans and can also speak like humans. It can recognize faces and voices and express emotions like happiness, sadness, etc., by changing its facial expressions.

We could go on and on about these humanoid robots, but you get the picture -present time, humanoid robots are advanced, and they advance even more with each iteration. 

Fast forward to the present. i.e., the age of Sophia, Vyommitra, the Neons, Digit, and their other brothers and sisters.

The present

I mentioned Sophia in the first sentence of this post. A few years ago, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia granted Sophia citizenship. Although this move was viewed by most as a marketing ploy by the Saudi Arabian government, it still stirred up some discomfort among the public.

To the public, mentioning “humanoid robots” and “artificial intelligence” is often met with fear and paranoia. As such, present-day discussions of humanoids have been as much about the ethical implications as the technical side -scientists have proved they can create human-like robots. The question is, how human will they be? How human should they be allowed to be, and what’s the risk for humans?

But with robots like Vyommitra (a robonaut), or the Neons (Samsung’s digital humans with unique “personalities”), you’ll see where the ethical angle comes in.

Besides these ethical factors, however, we cannot deny that advanced robots can be quite beneficial to human society.

  • Humanoid robots are being widely used in manufacturing plants for handling various jobs like welding, painting, assembling automobiles, etc.
  • We can also use them in restaurants, hotels, and homes for performing domestic jobs like cleaning, serving food, delivering messages, etc.
  • We can make them assistants for surgeons and nurses in the medical field to help them perform delicate tasks.
  • Humanoid robots have great potential to be employed in space exploration. We can send them to explore other planets instead of sending humans who may get harmed due to the harsh environment of space.
  • We can also employ them as assistants on board space stations where astronauts may not have enough time or energy to complete their assigned tasks on time.

The future of humanoid robots

The next generation of humanoid robots will be built using voice commands and optional pseudo-touch. It may seem like science fiction at times, but the next generation will show more advanced robot control and movement signs.

Predictions show that by 2025, we will see robots around us in every place of our daily life.

Scientists are working on creating robots that can learn from their mistakes. Some of them are already capable of doing so. We can expect robots to become better at human-like tasks such as walking, speaking, and even thinking in the future. One day, we might have robots who can do all the jobs that humans do today. This means that there won’t be any need for a human workforce. Robots can work 24 hours a day without getting tired or hungry, and they can work in dangerous places, too, where humans cannot go quickly.

If the current improvements in robotics components are anything to go by, this vision may be actualized. Mike McHenry, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, is “applying soft magnetic materials to motors, making them smaller, lighter, and more efficient.” These motors will make robots less bulky -like humans, but capable of doing more.

This invention and others may give rise to a new revolution in humanoid robots as they are further developed to handle specific tasks which require handling, talking, and sensing abilities.

Still, discomfort about humanoid robots persists. An article published on “The Verge” reported interacting with Ameca, a humanoid robot, as eery. Ameca makes human-like facial expressions, and most people have difficulty dealing with that. Researchers from Panasonic observed similar reactions in an earlier survey they conducted. They interviewed 400 people across Japan (100 females or 50% and 300 males or 80%) and found out that only 65.7% of the people were willing to stay next to ASIMO for 30 seconds. About 29% of females said, “I am a bit scared. ” Almost 33% of males felt uneasy with the body structure of the robot, while 10 % of males thought they could NOT put it into a family living environment.

But opposite reports exist as well. Scientists sent one human-like robot named Kirobo to space with a team of Japanese scientists. Instead of showing hostility, the robot started communicating with them and even formed an emotional bond in two weeks. Virginia Tech’s Roboy has followed suit by emitting mewling sounds like an infant. This may one day help robots better understand our actions, such as reaching for objects within their reach or understanding sense-of-touch input from robotic hands or feet.

So, should we be embracing advancements in robotics? Absolutely Yes. As long as humanoid robots are programmed and designed to do tasks for the betterment of humans, I say let’s create the best humanoid robots for everything!

As AI advances, the outlook is good for the future of humanoid robots. Sophia is already an ambassador and even has a job at the UNDP. Mr. Xu, Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Director of the Regional Bureau for Asia and Pacific, said this during Sophia’s appointment, “We are inspired by Sophia and are thrilled to announce her as our first-ever Innovation Champion. In partnership with Sophia, we can send a powerful message that innovation and technology can be used for good, improve lives, protect the planet, and ensure that we leave no one behind.”