Humanoids: the new era in robotics

By: Selam Temesgen

Humanoids, as their name gives it away, are robots that look like humans. We all have seen them in movies where they do everything human beings can, and sometimes more, while appearing positively indistinguishable from people. Currently, science, although still way behind, has come a long distance in terms of achieving that aspiration.

iCub, the humanoid designed by Tony Prescott, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Sheffield, is an exemplar of this. The robot has a sense of sight, hearing and feeling. It also has a sense of position power and movement enabling it to use its 53 degrees of freedom, which refers to the number of specific movements or displacements the robot can make, in a coordinated way.

It is said that when they are born human infants cannot tell the mark where their body ends and their environment begins. They learn to distinguish between themselves and their environment by executing small movements and observe their consequences.  iCub employs the same process in acquiring body awareness and learning to make a distinction between itself and the world. By this, it proves one of the main premises of neurorobotics ‘embodied cognition hypothesis’ which says that the body one inhibits plays a vital role in the development of cognition.  Tony Prescott said that iCub’s control system is modeled on the human brains so that it ‘thinks’ in a similar way to people. This has stocked the humanoid with the main cognitive abilities like speaking and learning by imitating and reacting to its environment.

With the aim of advancing knowledge on humanoid robots, the hardware and software of  iCub are released as an Open Source project so that  anyone interested can access freely the techniques and secrets of iCub since its start 10 years back. Currently, scientists in Spain and Italy are working further on it.  Their vision—  journalist and author  Hanel Stephenie says— is that when all the components that make up the human consciousness are perfectly simulated and compiled, the result will be a robot that can function side by side with humans.

Though such signs of progresses are very encouraging, humanoid robots in the West are still limited to research purposes. Next to the shortcomings of the science itself, this is partly due to the society’s view of robots that mimic humans as an attempt to imitate life; the worst taboo, interfering with work of God. Sci-fi literatures and movies that are stuffed with stories of robots attacking humans and trying to take over the world are also to blame.

The Japanese culture on the other hand, already sees inanimate objects like rivers and rocks as having their own spirituality helping them to embrace humanoid robots with ease. The very recent news from Japan stretches the difference of the cultural acceptance even to the extent that the Humanoids are now going to work as a Buddhist monk during funeral service.

The Japanese are, in fact, pioneers and world leaders in the field; some of their robots are almost unsettlingly humanlike. The perfect example for this is Erica, a robot made collaboratively by Tokyo and Osaka Universities and the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR). The humanoid, praised as the most beautiful and intelligent android in the world by its creators, is said to be 23 years old female. Erica can understand speech, and make very humanlike facial expressions. Though on limited topics, she can have conversations too.

 Erica, courtesy of BT TV

The aim of western scientists to design robots that function side by side with humans is no longer futuristic in Japan. In 2013, Toyota designed a humanoid robot named Kirobo to accompany Koichi Wakata— the first Japanese astronaut to be commanding the international space station— during his stay in space. Kirobo, whose name means hope in Japanese, has the abilities of speech synthesis and facial recognition. The 34cm long humanoid can also navigate in zero gravity; it assisted Commander Wakata in various experiments. When it returned safely in 2015 after staying 18 months in space, Kirobo set two Guinness Book records as the first companion robot in space and for the highest altitude of which a robot can engage on the task of conversation.

Encouraged by the success of Kirobo, Toyota has designed Kirobo Mini, which is a palm-sized humanoid that can carry out casual conversation to accompany people while at home or driving around in their car. “The robot is meant to emulate a seated baby and tendes to wobble a bit; to mimic a growing baby who is yet to learn the skills to balance itself” says the robot’s chief design engineer. Kirobo Mini is available in Japan for about 400 dollars.

In 2015, two branches of Mitsubishi UFJ financial group has started employing androids to deal with customer enquiries. In the same year a hotel that is entirely stuffed by robots, assisted by human colleagues, has been opened in a park near Nagasaki. These are just few examples and with such remarkable acceptance for humanoids, Noruma Reserch Institute, the leading think tank and system integrator in Japan, predicted that nearly half the jobs in Japan could be performed by robots within a decade or two.

Putting aside a bit farfetched worries like intelligent robots annihilating humankind and taking over the world, it is worth to mention the growing and understandable concern some have regarding advances in robotics and the free market’s undefiable economic instinct always toward the less costly options. The most sounding and realistic worry is mega technological unemployment; industries will lay off all their employees and replace them with robots that may not demand much more than occasional recharging.

On the other hand, others think that technological unemployment is a not a new thing our history and instead of unemployment, at the very least, we should expect the creation of more jobs in new areas of professions. Cecilia Laschi, professor of bio-robotics at the Scoula superior Sant’Anna Pisa, argue against the fear of mega technological unemployment saying “jobs generated in these fields will exceed the number of jobs that will disappear due to the use of robots.”

The Nobel Prize winning chemist Eric Betzig once said, “Every technology is like a new born baby – when it is born, you think it might become president or cure cancer. But in the end, you’re perfectly happy when it stays out of jail”. Whether humanoid robots turn out to be a blessing or blight for humanity, with laboratories around the world working to produce the new and better  iCubs, Ericas and Kirobos, we have one thing for sure; the time when humanoid robots swarm the streets, our homes and industries is indeed coming.

Reference

Bellone, Michele . “Inspired by Nature.” Oxygen. March 23, 2015. Accessed August 11, 2017. http://oxygen.enel.com/inspired-by-nature/#blocco-autore-fin-2118.

Byford, Sam. “Toyota’s Kirobo Mini companion robot goes on sale for $400 next year.” The Verge. October 03, 2016. Accessed August 15, 2017. https://www.theverge.com/2016/10/3/13146050/toyota-kirobo-mini-robot-price-release-date

Hanel, Stephanie. “Artificial Intelligence and Neurorobotics.” The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. October 15, 2016. Accessed August 13, 2017. http://www.lindau-nobel.org/artificial-intelligence-and-neurorobotics/.

McCurry, Justin. “Erica, the ‘most beautiful and intelligent’ android, leads Japan’s robot revolution.” The Guardian. December 31, 2015. Accessed August 11, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/dec/31/erica-the-most-beautiful-and-intelligent-android-ever-leads-japans-robot-revolution.

“Top 10 Humanoid Robots.” Infographic. Futurism. https://futurism.com/images/top-10-humanoid-robots/

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