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When Should Robots Resemble Humans?


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.

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

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