The Development of Humanoid Robot. Is it really worth it?
On August 19th, Elon Musk has presented in a conference a prototype of an advanced humanoid robot developed by Tesla. The Tesla Bot, as he called it; is a human-size robot with the capability to perform daily tasks in the human environment. The robot will be equipped with an advanced AI system that will help the robot navigate its way through the human workplace and decide the tasks that it should fulfill. Sound really incredible. Is it?
The announcement of developing such an advanced humanoid robot could be amazing news. We might expect to have a humanoid robot that serves us inside our homes and doing all the work from cooking to cleaning. Just as we see in science fiction movies, like I, Robot; it could become a reality in a few years. However, Tesla Bot might just be another Humanoid that will be added to a list of humanoid robots that were developed and introduced in the past but haven't made a major success in the markets.
One major example of a Humanoid robot is Pepper. In June 2014, SoftBank Robotics had introduced its social humanoid robot Pepper. The company released the first stock of the robot to the market in December 2015. The entire stock, which was made of 1,000 units; was sold in less than 2 minutes from the time of lunch. At the time of the introduction of Pepper to the market in 2015, the general prediction was this robot will take on many tasks in society. However, things do not seem to have gone according to expectations. In June 2021, SoftBank paused production of Pepper due to weak demand.
Pepper's case could be much better than some others. Honda has spent more than half a billion US dollars in the research and development on its humanoid robot Asimo for more than 25 years. Honda had never released its humanoid robot into the market. And Toyota is not that different from Honda. Toyota had developed a group of humanoid robots that were never introduced to the market. So will Tesla be another automotive company that develops a humanoid robot only for the sake of showing their engineering capabilities?
This might put one important question in front of us; it is worth it to spend such massive resources and time in developing such an advanced technology just to make it looks like a human.
There has been a great debate about the effectiveness of humanoid robot development. One group argues about the great benefits that we can learn from developing such technology. On the other hand, another group sees it as a complete waste of time and resources. And recommend instead on focusing more on developing robots that can perform specific tasks and applications. Each group is backing their claims with facts and evidence to support their voice point. With so many debates and disagreements, it is difficult to reach to an absolute calculation of whether we should continue with the development of humanoid robots.
From my point of view, I believe the stand of humanoid robot development lies somewhere in the middle between total focusing on application and total focus on human-like design. Looking at the process of humanoid robot development, it is been conducted in a cycle that exchanges between engineering and biological science. Scientists study and analyze the human body to come up with a model that engineers can understand. Based on the model, engineers develop the robot prototype, which they can test and evaluate. The testing of the robot system in real situations gives the chance to see the difference between the robot performance and humans. The gap in the performance between robots and humans will make us ask some questions about human capabilities, which will push our curiosity about our bodies. This will lead to more questions that will be sent back to the biological scientists who will conduct more research and studies on the human body and behavior.
This cycle of humanoid robot development, that goes between engineers and biological scientists produces a lot of valuable knowledge and techniques. The effort conducted by engineers to develop new technology for the humanoid robot is considered to be a state of the art. To develop technology that is capable to mimic and simulate human motion and behaviors, engineers need to push the limits and develop an advanced design and method. On the other hand, biological scientists will always receive questions about the human body that are worth investigating. If not for the development of humanoid robots, we would come back for such questions that scientists had never thought about before. The research and studies that are conducted by scientists can help better understand the nature of humans begin and dive deeper to uncover the securities of our bodies.
Going back to experiences with humanoid robot development. As I mentioned before Honda had spent more than half a billion US dollars on the development of Asimo. What benefits that Honda had gained from this project. Although Honda could not sell the humanoid robot in the market, it uses most of the technology developed for the robot on its cars. Mainly speaking, most of the AI and navigation systems that were developed for Asimo will be used for the development of Autonomous cars that Honda is going to develop.
And Honda is not the only company. There are many startups and tech companies that sell advanced AI systems that they developed previously for their humanoid robot. Moreover, the development of humanoid robots could lead us to develop some advanced robot systems with high capabilities. I think it is not that different from the process that leads us to the development of the airplane in the 20th century. Looking back on history, people tried to develop flying machines by mimicking birds. But what the Wright brothers had discovered was the need for an engine to provide a forward power and a vertical trail for stability, which both were discovered from experiments and not from birds' observation.
In conclusion, we can say that the development of humanoid robots is a very valuable effort to develop some of the most advanced technology and knowledge. However, we should focus more on developing a technology that could solve a real problem in the world, and not be drawn to develop a machine that looks like a human but has no real beneficial application.