Decatur/Austin robotics team prepares for competition

Humanoid robots are getting closer to reality

When asked a question, Ameca fixes you with sapphire eyes. Does this face have a hint of a smile? The answer is “Yes, I’m a robot.” Another Amika, standing nearby in a group of four, stares curiously and tries to join her. “Right now, he’s the worst guest ever,” says Will Jackson, creator of Ameca. “He gets late to every conversation and never shuts up.”

Jackson, president of Engineered Arts, a small robotics company in Falmouth, southwest England, is trying to solve this problem. These eyes contain cameras and Amecas are trained to recognize faces and identify who is paying attention or making eye contact during conversations. Teaching etiquette to robots in this way is another step in the long and complex process of making human-like machines that can live and work alongside people — and most importantly, do so safely. As Amica and other robots show, great strides are being made toward this end.

Some of the older boys are also commuting to work. On September 30, Elon Musk, president of Tesla, SpaceX, and Twitter, unveiled Optimus, a faceless prototype that hesitantly walked onto stage and waved to the audience. It is built from readily available parts. A more refined version was then run, using components designed by Tesla. Although he hasn’t been able to walk yet, Musk said progress has been made and that in volume production its price could drop to around $20,000.

Every home should have one

This is one tenth of the base Ameca cost. Jackson, who attended the unveiling of Optimus, agrees that prices will drop with mass production. (He has sold 11 Amecas companies so far, and plans to open a plant in America to increase production.) But he wonders what exactly Musk is suggesting. A video of Optimus moving parts at a Tesla factory has been revealed. However, car factories are already filled with the world’s most successful robots – transporting components, welding, painting parts and assembling vehicles. These robots don’t look like people because they don’t need to.

Jackson asserts that the reason for building a human-like machine is to perform tasks that involve human interaction. With a little development, Ameca, for example, might be a good companion for an elderly person – watch them, tell them that their favorite show is about to appear on TV and they never tire of having to repeat the forgotten reminders. To this end, Engineered Arts aims to teach its robots to play board games, such as chess. But only so well that it remains fallible, and can be defeated.

Jackson asserts that a robot needs a face to successfully interact with people. “The human face is our highest bandwidth communication tool,” he notes. “You can say more expressively than you can say with your voice.” Hence Amica’s face, made up of electronically movable latex leather, is very expressive.

Although the company, which has its origins in making animated characters for the entertainment industry, can build very realistic faces, the Ameca phizog was deliberately designed to consider how people would expect a robot to emerge from the realm of science fiction. She has gray skin, visible joints, and no hair. So he avoids falling into the “supernatural valley,” the illusion that occurs when an artificially created being turns from looking clearly not human to something more real, but not real enough. At this point people are disturbed by his appearance. Comfort levels rise again as human resemblance becomes near-perfect.

However, some robotics are striving for such perfection. Besides helping people, robots can also act as their representatives. Ishiguro Hiroshi, director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University in Japan, built one in his own image. It recently unveiled another, similar to Kono Taro, the Japanese Minister of Digital. The idea is for people to speak either through their avatar in their own voice, or by modifying someone else’s voice to sound like them. It is clear that Mr. Kono’s avatar will be used to take over the position of Minister in public relations functions.

Ameca can also act as an avatar. Although she is less human-like, her conversation is more compelling. This chatter comes from an external “brain” in the form of an artificial intelligence program called the Big Language Model. It interacts with this via a Wi-Fi connection and the Internet.

Engineered Arts is also working on hardware and software to allow the latest advances in computer vision to be quickly incorporated into their robotics. As Jackson readily admits, Amica needs to work in other areas as well. When asked if he could walk, the robot replied, “Unfortunately not, but I hope it will happen soon. Until then I’m lunged on the ground.” A set of pilot legs stands ready in a close corner.

different strokes

Different companies come from different directions in their approaches to making humanoid robots. Born into a family of artists involved in automated machines, Mr. Jackson naturally gravitated toward producing modern versions of it for the likes of parks, museums, and the film industry. This has steadily evolved in evolution. Some act as interactive guides. Others are used as research platforms by universities. During the Covid lockdown, when business dried up, the company threw all of its resources into developing Ameca, its most advanced model to date.

Other developers, such as Tesla, can organize much larger efforts – but not always with success, as is the case with the Japanese automaker Honda. At one point, Honda’s diminutive ASIMO robot was considered the most advanced in the world. The company began working on the project in the 1980s, and although Asimo can walk — albeit clumsily — interpreting voice commands and moving things around, Honda closed the project in 2018 to focus instead on more practical forms of robots. , such as mobility devices for the elderly.

Other robotics have turned their hobby into a business. Shadow Robot, a London company that supplies one of the most human-like robotic hands, has its roots in hobbyists meeting in the attic of its founder’s home. However, most of the bot developers have emerged from universities. One of the most famous is Boston Dynamics, which began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Atlas, which looks like the Hulk, has become an internet video sensation – running, jumping, and performing backflips. But the Atlas system is essentially a research project, and at the moment it would be too expensive to put into production. The company sells a mobile, but four-legged robot called Spot, which looks like a dog.

One of the advantages of a bipedal robot is that, in principle, it should be able to go anywhere a human can. This includes navigating uneven surfaces and walking up and down. Digit, made by Agility Robotics in Corvallis, Oregon, is already capable of doing this.

Digit is based on a walking stem called Cassie, which was developed at Oregon State University using studies that mechanically tilt human movement. He set a world record in May as the fastest robot to reach 100 metres. (He did it in 24.7 seconds, slightly behind Usain Bolt’s 9.6 seconds.)

Unlike Cassie, Digit has a chest, an arm, and hands of some sort – although no fingers. Instead of the head, it has lidar, an optical counterpart to radar that builds a 3D model of the world around it using a laser. Jonathan Hurst, chief technology officer of Agility, says Digit isn’t designed to be human-like. Rather, it is a “human-centered” robot that is meant to be a tool that people use to achieve more things.

Possibly one of Digit’s first roles would be in a distribution center operated by an online retailer or shipping company. Some already use automated cargo handling, but usually in fenced areas to keep people away, in order to avoid injuries. Elsewhere, tasks remain labour-intensive. Designed to work safely alongside people, Digit can start to change this – for example, by moving and stacking boxes. It can then progress to dump trucks. Eventually, you might even do home delivery, hauling things from a truck to the doorstep. Ultimately, the goal is for the user to be able to instruct the bot by talking to it.

Agility plans to mass produce Digit by 2024. It is working with many large, though unnamed, delivery groups on ways that Digit can safely work with people. If a person is detected by the robot’s sensors, it pauses and then moves around him or her. However, Dr. Hirst says, the robot will soon gain a streamlined face to help indicate its intentions. A set of moving eyes, for example, will look in a certain direction to indicate which direction you’re headed, and a quick glance at someone will show that they’ve spotted it.

dont hurt

These security systems will be essential for bots to successfully interact with people. At present, the use of robots is mainly governed by standard safety and product liability rules. Some argue, however, that laws specific to robots will be required to ensure they can run safely. As every sci-fi buff knows, Isaac Asimov put together a set of these eight decades ago. They are: • A robot may not harm a human being or, through inaction, allow a human to harm him or her. • The robot must obey orders issued to it by humans, except in cases where these orders conflict with the first law • The robot must protect its existence as long as this protection does not conflict with the first law or the second law.

But, as every sci-fi buff also knows, Azimov often revolves around these laws that don’t quite work out as planned.

Regarding his numbers, Dr. Hirst says, “My opinion is that they are very safe. But we need real statistics and a regulatory environment to prove this.”

For his part, Musk said the Optimus will feature a hardware device that can be used as a kill switch if needed. Although the bot itself will be connected to Wi-Fi, the switch will not, so it has been isolated to prevent remote interference.

As far as Amecas safety is concerned, Mr. Jackson takes an engineering approach. He notes that one of the reasons human limbs avoid injuring others is because they are both rigid and flexible. Unfortunately, the small, powerful motors needed to simulate this in robotics do not yet exist. He works on it, although it will be of little use to teaching Amica social grace if he then commits your bashing slip.

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