Sat. Dec 9th, 2023
    New Wave of Humanoid Robots: A Shift in Focus and Potential

    While the concept of building humanoid robots has long been an engineering dream inspired by science fiction, recent advancements in artificial intelligence have reignited interest and investment in this area. However, many of the current prototypes are plagued by clumsiness and impracticality, making them more suited for staged performances rather than real-life applications. Nevertheless, a few startups have remained committed to the challenge.

    One such startup is Agility Robotics, which aims to create robots capable of operating in human spaces rather than merely imitating human appearance. Their warehouse robot, Digit, is designed to pick up and move tote bins efficiently. In fact, Amazon has recognized Digit’s potential and plans to test its usability in their warehouses. To meet the demand, Agility has established a factory in Oregon to mass-produce the robots.

    Digit’s design features a head with cameras, sensors, and animated eyes, as well as a torso that serves as its engine. While its legs bear a resemblance to bird-like structures, they enable the robot to move with agility and efficiency.

    In contrast to Agility’s approach, a rival robot-maker named Figure AI believes that for robots to effectively navigate various environments, including workplaces and homes, they must closely resemble human beings. Figure AI plans to focus initially on simple use cases like retail warehouses before expanding the capabilities of their humanoid robot.

    The push for humanoids arises from the need to address labor shortages and changing demographics worldwide. Figure AI CEO Brett Adcock acknowledges the potential market for humanoids, stating that if these robots can perform tasks that human workers are unwilling or unable to do, it could result in the sale of millions or even billions of units.

    While Figure AI does not yet have a market-ready prototype, the company’s progress can be seen in a video demonstrating their robot’s functionalities within a test facility. Similarly, Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk is working on developing a humanoid robot named Optimus. However, Musk’s live demonstration of the robot’s movements last year received mixed reviews from robotics experts.

    Despite skepticism surrounding the pursuit of humanoid robots, pioneer companies like Boston Dynamics view the endeavor as a valuable learning experience. The evolution of their designs and functionalities has led to the creation of highly useful non-humanoid robots capable of handling various tasks.

    Startups such as Sanctuary AI prioritize the improvement of robotic dexterity, particularly in the fingers, before attempting to solve the complex challenge of bipedal walking. Sanctuary’s Phoenix robot exemplifies their approach, as it can stock shelves, unload vehicles, and even operate a checkout system. The goal is to develop robots that not only interact with humans but also possess the ability to reason and manipulate the physical world intelligently.

    Agility’s Digit robot piqued Amazon’s interest due to its mobility and its potential to complement the e-commerce giant’s existing fleet of warehouse robots. However, concerns about job displacement arise as robots like Digit become more prevalent. Nevertheless, Amazon aims to assuage such fears and emphasize that the presence of robots like Digit is intended to enhance efficiency rather than replace human workers.

    As the development of humanoid robots continues, it is evident that the focus is shifting towards creating practical and versatile robots that can operate alongside humans. While challenges remain, the potential for these robotic systems to revolutionize various industries and address labor shortages is substantial.


    1. Are humanoid robots human-like in appearance?

    Humanoid robots are intended to resemble humans, although current prototypes often exhibit less-than-perfect human-like characteristics. However, the focus is shifting towards practical functionalities rather than imitating human appearances.

    2. What are the main applications of humanoid robots?

    Humanoid robots have the potential to be used in various industries, including warehouses, retail, and even customer service roles. Their versatility allows them to perform a wide range of tasks that were traditionally performed by humans.

    3. Will humanoid robots replace human workers?

    The aim of humanoid robots is not to replace human workers but to complement their capabilities and address labor shortages. These robots are designed to perform tasks that are physically strenuous or less desirable for humans, allowing humans to focus on more complex and creative endeavors.