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

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'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.

In China, the market size of humanoid robots will expand exponentially by 2024. Graphic via Robotics Business Review.

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.”

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™ and AutonomyStudio™, 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

Going Green With Manufacturing: The Path Towards Sustainable Automation

There’s no question we’re in the midst of a climate crisis. As officials from all over the world struggle to create a plan to mitigate the effects of climate change, the causes are still points of contention. The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic paved the way for a brief but impactful decline in carbon emissions. Once the world reopened, however, it brought climate challenges back to square one. The pandemic also highlighted a stark drop in available goods due to a labor and supply shortage in which the effects are still being felt. Factory automation is a solution for the lack of labor, but how sustainable is it? At a glance, it might be easy to write off automation as energy-consuming, but this doesn’t tell the whole story.

Like most technologies, automation requires careful attention and planning to maximize its efficiency. If left unchecked, it could lead to different forms of waste. For example, in paint spraying procedures, human labor will account for a certain amount of waste. When fully autonomous robots execute that same task, the waste should be greatly reduced. If this autonomous robot is using iffy software or is poorly programmed then it could waste even more paint all while consuming large amounts of energy to complete a job in mediocre fashion

How Bad Can It Get?

The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) developed a board that listed the best- and worst-case scenarios for the environmental impacts of automation technologies. The IISD breaks down different categories of automation categories and lists the impact each sector has on the environment based on greenhouse gas emissions, resource usage, and ecosystem usage.

The worst-case scenarios here are predictable. If left unchecked, the environment could have significant adverse consequences in fields such as autonomous transport and the Internet of Things. Essentially, if resources aren’t properly managed, then it’s only normal that waste could become an issue.

Resource management is essential to the preservation of the environment. The chart predicts that in a best-case scenario, artificial intelligence – along with autonomous transportation and the Internet of Things – would have a “significant positive impact” on the environment. Again, these are purely predictions from a single source, but they aren’t unattainable. If advanced technologies, like nuclear fusion, can advance to a point of universal adoption, then these predictions will be closer to reality.

Figure 1. Showing a best- and worst-case scenario of greenhouse gas emissions, resource use, and ecosystem use for various sectors where autonomous systems can be implemented (via Dusik et al.)

Manufacturing and Its Impact On the Environment

In an article published by Al Jazeera in 2021, they state that “manufacturing – especially of the cheap construction staples steel and cement – accounts for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions.” In the United States, manufacturing processes consist of 25% of the country’s energy use. Manual methods of manufacturing are quickly becoming archaic and will require an overhaul towards automation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Inefficient technology is one factor behind the world’s overconsumption of technology. In 2013, a report published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that the world’s 14 billion online electronic devices had wasted around $80 billion every year. Though the IEA lacks an update nearly a decade later, it’s fair to assume that this number hasn’t gotten any better.

New technologies are hoping to make energy consumption all the more sustainable with different parties advocating for different methods such as solar-powered electronics and the aforementioned nuclear fusion. Neither of these forms of energy is ready for widespread use – in fact, nuclear fusion is still very much in its infancy – but that doesn’t mean advances in other sectors won’t help mitigate the effects of climate change.

Figure 2. Coal- and oil-based electricity generation cause the most greenhouse gas emissions while hydro, wind, and nuclear all have minimal impact (via Let’s Talk Science 2020).

What the Research Says

A research paper titled “A global horizon scan of the future impacts of robotics and autonomous systems on urban ecosystems,” written by a number of authors including Mark A. Goddard and Zoe G. Davis, detailed how exactly a robotic autonomous system (RAS) could affect the environment down the line. While they touch upon the ecological benefits of factory automation – more on that later – they also specified how automation could benefit entire cities and ecosystems.

In short, automation could lead to better use of land, especially in dense cities, like Dubai, which could lead to less space being used for transport infrastructure. They predict that if automation becomes widespread, then fewer people will need cars, paving the way for reduced roads, car parks, and driveways. They add that automation in buildings could regulate energy consumption and reduce heat loss.

With these services becoming more eco-friendly, “RAS will reduce human-nature interactions by, for example, reducing the need to leave the house as services are automated and decreasing awareness of the surrounding environment while travelling.”

While the research goes far more in depth about topics such as managing invasive species and biodiversity, it’s clear that, if properly implemented, RAS could be a game-changing service provided to the world.

These long-reaching effects are not just for cities and communities, they will also immensely benefit manufacturers who will be able to both augment productivity and reduce their carbon footprint.

Considering a sustainable factory will not only benefit the environment, but will benefit your savings in the long run

How Sustainable is Automation Really?

The world of automation is vast. There are many different ways an autonomous system can help the environment. Robots can be programmed in empty fields to plant trees. Self-driving electric cars will one day be commonplace, not only eliminating the need for gas refuels but also greatly reducing noise pollution as cars will be mostly silent and obnoxious honking from irritated drivers. While these are more day-to-day and simpler options, enabling autonomous robotic systems in manufacturing plants can also go a long way toward reducing their carbon footprint. Here are some examples of how automation can contribute to the fight against climate change:

Reduced Energy Consumption: Fewer humans in the factory means you can downsize and use less space in the factory. With less space means heating and air conditioning costs will decrease. As well, autonomous robots will take less time to complete a task, therefore using less energy.

Reduced Waste: With human labor, it’s normal to expect waste when performing certain tasks like paint spraying or powder coating. A fully autonomous robot will know exactly how much of each resource to use, minimizing waste. It will also reduce reworks, touch-ups, and complete revisions.

A reduction in both energy consumption and waste will not only benefit the manufacturers’ costs but will also contribute to a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, eventually minimizing a factory’s carbon footprint. As well, if new forms of energy, like nuclear fusion, become usable, then it will improve a factory’s level of sustainability as well.

Figure 3. Greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from industry make up for nearly a quarter of the U.S.’s total GHGs in 2020, signifying an urgency to move towards sustainable forms of energy. (Via EPA)

Getting There: The Road to Sustainable Manufacturing

The world is slowly but surely taking steps to ensure our collective carbon footprint declines. With autonomous robotics systems, manufacturers can directly contribute to that. While it might not be the sole reason manufacturers will switch to a fully autonomous robotics system, they can find some solace in knowing that adopting these systems won’t only be beneficial to their company, but to future generations who depend on the Earth’s wellbeing.

 

With AutonomyOS™ and AutonomyStudio™, you can move towards a fully autonomous robotics system that is as practical as it is ecological. Using 3D Perception with AI-based Task Planning and Motion Planning, manufacturing engineers and integrators can configure autonomous robotic systems for value-added processes that allow manufacturers to achieve more consistency and flexibility in production than ever before. Contact us to learn more