Humanoid Robots Getting Closer to Being Real
Ameca looks at you with sapphire-blue eyes when you ask her a question. Is there a hint of a smile on that face? “Yes, I am a robot, “is the answer. Another Ameca, who is standing nearby with three others, looks over with interest and tries to join in. “Right now, it’s the worst party guest ever, “Will Jackson, who made Ameca, says this. “It joins every conversation and never stops talking.”
Mr. Jackson, who runs a small robotics company in Falmouth, England, called Engineered Arts, is trying to solve this problem. The Amecas are being taught to recognize faces and tell who is paying attention or making eye contact during conversations by using the cameras in their eyes. This is another step in the long, complicated process of making robots that look and act like people and can live and work with people safely. Ameca and other robots show that a lot of progress is being made in this direction.
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There are also some big players getting into the business. Elon Musk, who runs Tesla, SpaceX, and Twitter, showed off Optimus on September 30. It was a clunky, faceless prototype that walked on stage slowly and waved to the crowd. It was made from parts that were easy to find. Then, Tesla’s parts were used to make a version that was even better. Even though it couldn’t walk yet, Mr. Musk said that progress was being made and that when it was mass-produced, the price could drop to about $20,000 per unit.
One should be in every home.
That is one-tenth of what basic Ameca costs. Mr. Jackson was there when Optimus was unveiled, and he agrees that prices will go down as more are made. (He has already sold 11 Amecas and plans to open a factory in the United States to make more.) But he isn’t sure what Mr. Musk is suggesting. At the event, a video was shown of Optimus’s parts moving in a Tesla factory. But the most successful robots in the world are already at work in car factories, moving parts around, welding and painting parts, and putting cars together. Because they don’t need to, these robots don’t look like people.
Mr. Jackson says that making machines that look like people is done so that they can do jobs that require them to interact with people. With a little more work, Ameca could be a friend to an elderly person, keeping an eye on them, telling them when their favorite TV show is about to start, and never getting tired of having to remind people over and over again. Engineered Arts wants to teach its robots how to play board games like chess so that they can do this. But only so well that they can still make mistakes and be beaten.
Mr. Jackson says that a robot needs a face to be able to talk to people well. “The human face is the best tool we have for communication, “he points out. “With your face, you can say more than you can with your voice.” So, Ameca’s face, which is made of latex skin that is electronically moved, is very expressive.
Even though the company started out making animated figures for the entertainment industry and can make very realistic faces, Ameca’s phizog is made to look like a robot from a science fiction story. Its skin is gray, its joints are clear, and it has no hair. So, it doesn’t fall into the “uncanny valley.” “An illusion that happens when a computer-made being changes from looking obviously not human to look more human, but not quite human enough. At this point, people are upset by how it looks. Again, the level of comfort goes up as the similarities to humans get almost perfect.
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But some roboticists do try to reach this level of perfection. Robots can do more than just help people. They can also act as their avatars. Director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University in Japan, Ishiguro Hiroshi, has made one that looks like him. He just recently showed off another one that looks like Japan’s digital minister, Kono Taro. The idea is that people can either use their own voice to talk through their avatar or someone else’s voice that has been changed to sound like them. It looks like Mr. Kono’s avatar will stand in for the minister at public relations events.
Ameca could also work as an avatar, even though he looks less like a person. Its conversation is more interesting. Its ability to talk a lot comes from an AI program called a large language model that it talks to over Wi-Fi and the internet.
Engineered Arts are also making hardware and software that will make it easy to add the latest advances in computer vision to its robots quickly. Mr. Jackson freely admits that Ameca also needs work in other ways. When asked if it can walk, the robot says, “Unfortunately, I can’t, but I hope to be able to soon.” I’m stuck to the floor until then.” In a nearby corner, a set of test legs is ready to go.
When it comes to making humanoid robots, different companies take different approaches. Since Mr. Jackson was born into a family of artists who made automatons, it was only natural for him to make modern versions of them for places like theme parks, museums, and the movie business. These have become more complicated over time. Some work as guides that you can talk to. Some are used by universities as places to do research. During the covid lockdown, when business stopped, the company put all of its efforts into making Ameca, its most advanced model to date.
Other developers, like Tesla, can organize much bigger projects, but not always successfully, as the case of Honda shows. At one time, ASIMO, a small humanoid robot made by Honda and named after Isaac Asimov, who wrote science-fiction stories about robots, was thought to be the most advanced in the world. The company started working on this project in the 1980s. ASIMO could walk, albeit clumsily, understand voice commands, and move objects, but Honda shut down the project in 2018 to focus on more useful robots, like ones that help the elderly get around.
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Robotics is a hobby for some people who have turned it into a business. Shadow Robot is a company in London that makes one of the most human-like robot hands on the market. It was started by hobbyists who got together in the attic of the founder’s house. Most groups, though, have grown out of universities. One of the best-known is Boston Dynamics, which started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Atlas, which looks like the Hulk, has become a hit on the internet because of videos of him running, jumping, and doing backflips. But Atlas is mostly a research project that would be too expensive to make. The company does sell a robot that can walk, but it has four legs and is called Spot. It looks like a dog.
One benefit of a two-legged robot is that it should be able to go anywhere a person can. That means walking on uneven ground and up and down steps. Agility Robotics in Corvallis, Oregon, made Digit, which can do this.
Digit is based on Cassie, a walking torso that was made at Oregon State University by studying how people move with machine learning. In May, it ran 100 meters faster than any other robot. It took 24.7 seconds, which is much longer than Usain Bolt’s 9.6 seconds.
Digit is different from Cassie in that he has a chest, arms, and kind of hands, but no fingers. Instead of a head, it has a lidar, which is like radar but works with lasers to make a three-dimensional model of the world around it. Jonathan Hurst, Agility’s chief technology officer, says that Digit is not meant to look like a person. It is instead a “human-centered” robot that is meant to help people get more done.
One of Digit’s first jobs will probably be in a distribution center run by an online retailer or freight company. Some places already use automated goods handling, but it’s usually in areas that are fenced off so people can’t get hurt. In other places, tasks still require a lot of work. Digit could start to change this by being made to work safely with people. For example, it could move and stack crates (see picture). The job could then move on to unloading trucks and then to making home deliveries by carrying items from the van to the door. The goal is to be able to talk to the robot and tell it what to do.
Agility wants to make a lot of Digit by 2024. It is working with a number of big delivery companies, which have not been named, to find safe ways for Digit to work with people. If the robot’s sensors pick up on someone, it will stop and go around them. Dr. Hurst says, though, that it will soon get a simpler face to help show what it wants to do. For example, an animated pair of eyes will look in a certain direction to show where it is going, and a glance at someone will show that it has seen them.
Do no harm
For robots to work well with people, they will need these kinds of safety systems. At the moment, most safety and product liability rules govern how they are used. Some people, though, say that special laws will be needed to make sure robots are used safely. As every fan of science fiction knows, Asimov came up with these ideas 80 years ago. These are:
But every fan of science fiction knows that Asimov’s stories are often about how these laws don’t quite work out as planned.
Dr. Hurst says this about his Digits: “I think they are very safe. But to prove this, we need real statistics and a regulatory environment.”
Mr. Musk, for his part, said that Optimus would have a device that could be used as a stop button if needed. The robot itself would be connected to Wi-Fi, but the switch wouldn’t be. Because of this, the switch was kept separate to prevent interference from afar.
When it comes to making sure the Amecas are safe, Mr. Jackson takes an engineering approach. He notices that human limbs don’t hurt other people because they are both stiff and soft at the same time. Unfortunately, robots do not yet have the small, powerful actuators that would be needed to do this. He is working on it, though, because it won’t help to teach an Ameca good manners if it then makes the social faux pas of bumping into you.