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What is a Humanoid Robot and Is It A Sign of the Future?

Though the autonomous robots we have today aren’t sentient like HAL, we’re approaching an era of humanoid robots that look like humans but function off lines of code. So if a humanoid robot isn’t quite HAL but also not a standard pick-and-place robot, then what exactly is it?

From the early days of modern technology, we’ve always romanticized what a fully autonomous robot can be. Especially in forms of art like films, novels, and video games, robots that can think for themselves, move around autonomously, and even fight wars have long been engrained in our heads as the peak of artificial intelligence. One of the earlier modern examples is HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Though not quite a fully formed and physical humanoid, HAL was still sentient enough to seem human and act on its own. Though the autonomous robots we have today aren’t sentient like HAL, we’re approaching an era of humanoid robots that look like humans but function off lines of code. So if a humanoid robot isn’t quite HAL but also not a standard pick-and-place robot, then what exactly is it?

Ancient Origins of the Humanoid Robot

While HAL certainly popularized how a sentient AI could eventually function, the first notion of humanoid robots or beings came long before that. In fact, the first mention of them came in the 4th century BCE in ancient Greek mythology. In the Illiad, Homer used the word “automata,” the precursor for autonomous robots. He described them as “machines moving on their own by means of internal energy.” Though technology wasn’t remotely advanced at the time, Homer clearly had an understanding of how things moved on their own. 

One of the earliest depictions of an automaton is Talos from ancient Greek mythology.

Homer went on to explain how Hephaestus created a myriad of different forms of humanoid automata such as golden handmaidens with human-like voices to serve their human leaders. In the myth of Pandora, Hephaestus had built an artificial woman named Pandora who would go to Earth and scold humans for discovering fire.

But humanoid automata would hardly stop being conceived there. In China, the Middle East, Italy, Japan, and France, from the middle ages to the industrial revolution, would all see inventors come up with their ideas of what a humanoid robot could be. Intellectuals like Leonardo Da Vinci, Ismail al-Jazari, and Jacques de Vaucanson all attempted to create fully functioning autonomous machines. Naturally, they had their limitations, but the creativity has existed since the earliest days.


Modern Proceedings

Fast forward a few centuries and now we’re entering an era where robots are becoming more intelligent, adaptable, and ever-present in our lives, whether we know it or not. The most common types of robots we’ve seen so far are pick-and-place robots, but they’re not exactly sentient like HAL, let alone other intelligent fictitious robots like WALL-E. 

As far as ambitious ideas go, Elon Musk has continued to provide ideas that most of us assume are the future of robotics and artificial intelligence. For over a year, Musk has been promising a humanoid robot called Optimus. At Tesla’s annual AI day, in 2022, the company unveiled a prototype of Optimus where the robot was shown walking across the stage and waving at those in the crowd.

Admittedly, the new prototype is a bit of a rough sketch. The body is incomplete and the software powering the humanoid robot is still in its infancy. Eventually, once the programming is more mature and developed, these robots will be capable of handling day-to-day tasks such as buying groceries and cleaning the house. For now, its capabilities are minimal. But Tesla is banking on promise.

Tesla Optimus Robot
Tesla's latest reveal of Optimus shows how quickly humanoid robots are progressing. Screenshot via Stephen Shankland at CNET.

What Even Is A Humanoid Robot?

Beyond Tesla’s prototype is what we now recognize as the most advanced humanoid robot, Sophia. Unveiled in 2016, Sophia looked and felt real, offering more-or-less advanced social skills. 

Humanoid robots aren’t simply for socializing. They’re designed to help humans execute tasks in a similar way that autonomous robots do now, except at a smaller scale. While autonomous robots these days are focused on pick-and-place, painting, welding, sanding, and more, these humanoid robots will focus on more human tasks, even in manufacturing contexts.

Humanoid robots are built to look and sound like humans. They aren’t here to replace humans, but to serve as complementary companions to do some of the grunt work that we don’t always want to do. As mentioned before, the Tesla robot will one day be able to go get our groceries for us. Some of the most menial day-to-day tasks can one day be assigned to robots to do our work for us.

On a manufacturing level, humanoid robots will be able to handle menial tasks in the workplace as well. According to Automate, “humanoid robots are being used in the inspection, maintenance and disaster response at power plants to relieve human workers of laborious and dangerous tasks.”

China Humanoid Robot Market Size, By Product
In China, the market size of humanoid robots will expand exponentially by 2024. Graphic via Robotics Business Review.

Humanoids Versus Industrial Robots

Humanoid robots face a glaring concern: just how durable are they? At such an early stage, these humanoid robots are likely to face problems, both internally and externally. For all new tech, the first few editions are always just a few (sometimes more) steps away from total usability. The actuators placed within the robots are relatively new to this field and will likely see more than problems than successes in its infancy stage.

Think of it this way: Elon Musk wants to sell these robots at $20,000 per unit. At that cost, is it really plausible that it functions as well as you want? How reliable will they be for physically demanding jobs? Time will only tell, but with robots it’s clear: the literal human form factor doesn’t need to be imitated if it doesn’t fit the requirements of its job.

Do You Need A Humanoid Robot?

We could all use a humanoid robot. Even though some of us may like getting our own groceries, there’s no denying that there are bound to be some boring tasks that you would want a robot to handle. The real question isn’t whether you need a humanoid robot – it’s more about how on Earth you can get your hands on one.

At this stage, humanoid robots are still new and therefore expensive and inaccessible. If you run a manufacturing plant of some sort, you might be able to find a prototype, but that will mostly only serve you from a commercial standpoint. As far as personal humanoid robots go, we’re not quite there. The closest thing we have to that at the moment is a Roomba, but it’s more frisbee-looking than human truth be told.

Autonomous robots are becoming more commonplace and once they’ve fully adapted to commercial environments, that’s when we’ll see more of them in family households. Until then it’s vital to continue working on AI and participating in its development as best we can.

With AutonomyOS™ you won’t quite get a humanoid robot, but it’ll come as close as it gets for now. With autonomous robots, you can on time and effort for even your most arduous manufacturing needs. Contact us to learn more

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