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When Should Robots Resemble Humans?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I’ve been spending a lot of time around robots lately (hey, there’s something I never thought I’d say). I got a chance to see and interact with several different kinds of robots recently at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering’s Robotics Open House.

I saw robots that sort colored objects like the PR2,

socially assistive robots that do work with autistic kids like the Nao,

and little dino robots that just look cute.

I’m particularly interested in robot locomotion. Right now researchers are working on ways that bipedal robots can balance. It’s a tough problem. Just being stationary is hard, so actually walking is a whole other can of worms, and when you factor in being pushed or moving on uneven terrain, you’re talking about extremely complicated maneuvers and processing.

Photo by Katie McKissick

Photo by Katie McKissick

 

When I hear about how hard it is to make a humanoid robot walk and balance the way we do, my first question is, “Then why make a robot that looks like a person?” The answer is in the future use of such robots. Robots like this one could be (among other things) first responders in dangerous situations, finding survivors in a collapsed building, for instance. Given that, it would be useful for the robot to be human-sized since it will be entering spaces designed for us humans. There is also a psychological concern that in an emergency, victims may be more responsive to a human-looking robot.

Those are some good reasons, but I’m not yet convinced. I feel like we are limiting our imaginations here, and it reminds me of how disappointingly humanoid most movie aliens are (which I’ve discussed in the past in a post on Beatrice the Biologist). It might just be our species’ general narcissism that compels us to make robots humanoid if they are going to be doing important work, but a dog-shaped robot could just as easily be built to help people in an emergency with a fraction of the difficulty, and I don’t know about you, but I think I’d find a doggish robot much friendlier than a human-shaped robot that might be approaching the uncanny valley.

But I’m also not saying there is no situation in which you’d want a humanoid robot. I think the sort of home helper robots we might have in the future may need to be particularly human-looking because they will be interacting with so many spaces and objects that are specifically designed for our height, our frame, and our hands. And for socially assistive robots that could help autistic children learn social conventions or elderly patients do physical therapy, it would make sense for the robot to be human-ish like the Nao robot (albeit cartoony and tiny).

But I don’t want roboticists to feel constrained by our structure and biology. Those robot legs that resemble ours in almost every way–with knees, ankles, tendons–seem like they could be better. I’m sure our brains can come up with a better design than what evolution has bestowed upon us. But I also know that to design something entirely from scratch is no easy task.

What do you think? Leave your answer in the comments.

Katie McKissick About the Author: Katie McKissick is a former high school biology teacher turned science writer and cartoonist based in Los Angeles, CA. Her first book is called What’s in Your Genes? and will be in bookstores December 2013. Her work can be found at www.beatricebiologist.com. Follow on Twitter @beatricebiology.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. N a g n o s t i c 12:39 pm 04/25/2013

    Should robots resemble humans? I have no opinion on “should”. I just think it will be cool when they do.

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  2. 2. Teklanika1 4:47 pm 04/25/2013

    Some robots will resemble humans as they will resemble all other possible “animals” and shapes. It is just a matter of inclination and time…..

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  3. 3. Acoyauh2 5:11 pm 04/25/2013

    I think the trade is varied enough thus far. As well as humanoid robots, I’ve seen all sorts of experiments in different shapes and modes of locomotion, some for specific needs, others just for the heckuvit trying the potentials of some materials’ peculiarities.

    As far as parctical / commercial uses that would be more widespread, I do expect human and animal shapes to be a high proportion of them. Add the wheeled & flying ones, and the remaining ones – the very specific, peculiar, experimental, etc. – will be the odd, tiny minority.

    And since you mentioned uncanny alley: sexbots, anyone? Once someone hits a cost/quality balance I see a gazillion-dolar business there. Only the military can beat sex, profits-wise.

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  4. 4. cbung 5:22 pm 04/25/2013

    Form follows function will be the criteria for sheer economics. So we have a multitude of designs that essentially ignore the human form factor. Without that consideration, these things won’t get of the the ground; won’t begin to evolve. What we have now are merely toys, and will not compare to what will be developed. Real world world application will determine design when robots move from the fantasy to implementation. The human anatomy will have nothing to do with it.

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  5. 5. Simon Says 7:08 pm 04/25/2013

    Form follows function, not all robots will be humanoid. If a robot is made to inspect sewers I doubt seriously it would be fashioned after us; however, if it is meant to do tasks that we do in a multi-environment world built for humans (such as house work) and do a variety of tasks (not a robot for each task) then it probably will be humanoid. Think “Star Wars.” It might sound corny but R2D2 was built to fit in a compartment, be compact, and fix spacecraft. C3P0, on the other hand, was meant to have close dynamic ties to human/oids and perform multiple tasks in that framework. Not necc. the best example, but I think it shows the point I am trying to make.

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  6. 6. beatrice 7:13 pm 04/25/2013

    I really like the Star Wars example. I guess I’m just surprised that for robots we don’t have much between these extremes: wheels a la R2D2 and legs like C3PO. I feel like there should be something in between, maybe with more flexible moveable appendages that don’t have “knees” and “ankles.” Or something that absorbs impact differently like a vertical piston. I don’t know. Just wanted to throw it out there!

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  7. 7. waltermatera 8:26 pm 04/25/2013

    I think humanoid robots are absurd. The whole thing about the human shape is its versatility. Why does a robot have to be a versatile as a person? In about seven to ten years cars will be autonomous. Isn’t that a robot chauffeur? The Army’s research into mechanical mules that haul stuff are robots. Build robots to fit their function, damned few of which are humanoid. Specialized ‘bots for special tasks, say I. Making one that looks like us is just ego, the need for a slave that waits on you. Grow up!

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  8. 8. Kelly Ricks 7:59 am 04/26/2013

    “I’m sure our brains can come up with a better design than what evolution has bestowed upon us.” (last paragraph of article)

    I agree entirely. I also think that as builders strive to solve problems like balance and coordination, we’ll all benefit from their discoveries. The insights we gain from these advancements will likely serve many purposes, whether or not humanoid robots come into wide usage.

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  9. 9. davelongey 11:39 am 04/26/2013

    Making robots that interact with people and look like people has always been conceived in mechanical terms, but these bots use large amounts of power and despite advances are still noisy and awkward.

    Seems to me that something closer to the Replicant will be the eventuality.

    Using 3D printers and biological or bio-mimetic materials any sized body (human or otherwise) could be deposited in layers with microscopic precision to replicate the bones and muscles and skin and nervous system of any existing or imaginary creature.

    Maybe future robots will be duplicates of our own physiology using synthetic muscle material activated by a synthetic motor cortex.

    Electric motors are inefficient and eat up battery charges like crazy. More efficient locomotive solutions are needed, and we should examine how animals do it.

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  10. 10. xewyvyzewes 12:00 pm 04/26/2013

    If you think Adam`s story is impressive,, four weeks ago my sisters friend who is a single mom got paid $7412 putting in a fourty hour month from there apartment and the’re roomate’s step-sister`s neighbour has done this for 6 months and earnt more than $7412 in there spare time online. applie the instructions from this web-site,….. http://qr.net/kiOQ

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  11. 11. dadster 4:43 pm 04/26/2013

    Wheels are so good for locomotion .it’s surprising how nature missed out on creating even one living thing with wheels .I don’t know how microbes move about . So, robots can have wheels for locomotion.they can have one eye on front positioned on probes and antennas that can rotate 360 degrees which can cover all around in one scan and a spare one to duplicate the system in emergencies which is capable of viewing in infra red and ultraviolet ranges. Ears must be able to capture lower and higher pitches of sound , more sensitive to get direction , bearings and reflex actions on sounds and sights must be sharper than a snake’s . Flexibility in motion and turning must be much better .

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  12. 12. dadster 5:29 pm 04/27/2013

    A human has to fit in a mutitude of situations and tasks,besides the emotional need to satisfy his own curiosity,greed,hunger and thirst and subsequent needs. Most of these are not the needs of robots.Robots can be designed on function and task based needs . That way, only those that are designed to perform complex tasks need be built with complicated design features. For performing simpler routine tasks you need to build simpler ones , just as we have different types of makes, types and models of vehicles , farm and earth-moving , medical and defence equipments. We are not building human replicas but functional robots . They don’t have to resemble human form or endowed with human features as they won’t have free will , don’t have to forage or reproduce,or haven to have entertainments , fashion clothing or, to play sports and games or need to have theatre nor do they have to philosophise or even think independently too. Hence , lot more need to be accomplished by creating expertise and compartmentalisation of functional needs .normally robots need be guided / supervised by humans and will not be left on their own .

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