Jun 25, 2023

Ask Hackaday: What’s The Deal With Humanoid Robots?

When the term ‘robot’ gets tossed around, our minds usually race to the image of a humanoid machine. These robots are a fixture in pop culture, and often held up as some sort of ideal form.

Yet, one might ask, why the fixation? While we are naturally obsessed with recreating robots in our own image, are these bipedal machines the perfect solution we imagine them to be?

To start, let’s acknowledge the appeal behind humanoid robots. By aping the human form, they can theoretically more readily execute tasks in environments engineered for humans. Their two-legged form and dextrous hands make a wide variety of tasks easier, allowing them to walk up stairs, open doors, and perform a multitude of other tasks in a world built for homo sapiens. In domestic situations, in particular, this is key. No wheeled robotic vacuum cleaner has yet proven itself capable of surmounting these simple obstacles. But does this anthropomorphic approach to robotics make them an ideal solution?

In reality, creating a robot that can accomplish specific tasks does not necessarily require it to be humanoid. Task-specific robots, designed with a focus on function rather than form, often outperform their humanoid counterparts. For example, consider industrial robots. These machines, devoid of any hint of human form, are far more efficient at assembly line tasks, loading and unloading heavy objects, and other factory work. Years of optimization has produced giant disembodied arms that are nonetheless capable of feats no human could ever match. Why build a complicated and awkward human-shaped robot to climb in and weld a car boy together, when a six-jointed machine can get the tool where it needs to go in a fraction of a second?

Similarly, the Roomba, a robot for cleaning floors, succeeds without arms or legs. It has a disk-like design that lets it navigate under furniture. Us humans, on the other hand, have to kneel down and futz around, jabbing the vacuum into the shadows. Drones, too, with their hovering ability, outperform humanoid robots in tasks like surveying land or delivering packages.

Humanoid robots don’t bring many strengths to the table. Instead, they offer a whole lot of compromises and weaknesses. The flexibility of the human form is that we can do a near-infinite range of tasks with some passable level of ability. For robots, this flexibility is often pointless. Even if they had a perfectly flexible human body to work with, they lack the intelligence and ability to carry out a wide variety of tasks. The human is a jack of all trades, while the robot is a master of one. They work best when told exactly how to do one thing, and then optimized as a whole to suit.

Even the basics of being vaguely human is hard. The challenge is in the complexity involved in mimicking human abilities. Walking on two legs, for example, is a marvel of balance and coordination that robots find extremely difficult to replicate. The energy expenditure required for a bipedal robot to maintain balance often reduces its operational time significantly.

Furthermore, replicating the intricacy of human hands and our fine motor skills is a formidable task. Most humanoid robots have rather crude grasping capabilities compared to a human, thus limiting their effectiveness.

Even our finest efforts are yet to produce a robot analogue of a human hand with comparable finesse, dexterity, and flexibility. To say nothing of the way we can coordinate our hands with our wrists, arms, and the rest of our body.

Then there are considerations of cost and fragility. Designing and manufacturing a humanoid robot is a complex, expensive task, often resulting in machines that are less durable and more prone to malfunctions.

So, where does this leave us with humanoid robots? They’re a bit of a craze lately, as it turns out. Tesla is pushing its Optimus robot, and using it as a sales gimmick in New York city. Startups like Sanctuary AI are touting their own Phoenix humanoid with what it touts as a “human-like general intelligence.” It’s got the ability to shake hands and give a very unconvincing thumbs-up. Intel, too, is investing big, with a $9 million sum to support the development of the Figure 01 robot.

It seems the appeal of humanoid robots lies more in our emotional response to them, rather than any promise of great functionality. They seem familiar and friendly, like the anthropomorphized animals we all love in cartoons. They promise a future where robot companions can seamlessly integrate into our human-centered world. But it’s essential to remember that, in many cases, the ideal robot may not look human at all. A Roomba is a hockey puck.

After all, the aim of robotics isn’t to create mechanical humans, but to build machines that can augment our capabilities, take on tasks that are dangerous or mundane for us, and overall, make our lives easier.

So what do you think? Are humanoid robots the future, or are we better off developing task-specific machines? Does the ‘human’ in humanoid limit our understanding and development of robotics? Do we just need smarter robot brains to make the humanoid format worthwhile? Share your thoughts in the comments below.