Movie character like shin Godzilla Humanoid has stretched our imagination about robots. It has also made us apprehensive about the uprising of robots in taking over the human race. In reality, we are also witnessing the birth and growth of human-like machine creatures–Humanoids. Notable ones are Honda’s ASIMO or Softbank’s Pepper Robot. We also witnessed an entertaining humanoid–Sophia. Hence, the obvious question is about the purpose of humanoid robots.
On the one hand, these humanoids have made us concerned about the future of work. On the other hand, they have also stimulated the creative urge of the youths. Across the globe, students build humanoids with the ability to sense, move heads, shake hands, and speak like humans. Their uprising raises questions about the purpose and future of work for humanoid robots and also for the Human. Like many other technologies, will they keep growing like a wave of the creative force of destruction? Will they reshape the future of work?
Purpose of humanoid robots for reshaping the future of work
In the sketched plan of Leonardo da Vinci, a humanoid was born around 1495. As opposed to electric motors, microcontrollers, and sensors, several pulleys and cables made that humanoid stand, sit, raise its visor, and individually move its arms. Since then, human beings have been expressing their creativity in recreating themselves by making one after another humanoid. In 1929, “Eric the robot, the man without a soul” impressed the world. The New York Press described Eric as “the perfect man.” Surprisingly, upon creating a sensation, Eric disappeared and waited for its reappearance at the London Science Museum in 2017. However, why did Eric disappear? Is it because it did not find any work to generate income?
From individual aspiration to academic R&D
The humanoid-making journey continued reaching the research laboratories of universities. In 1967, Waseda University of Japan initiated a humanoid project WABOT. Subsequently, WABOT-1 emerged in 1972. This full-scale android humanoid was able to communicate in Japanese. It could also navigate a room, and grip as well as transport objects. Afterward, WABOT-1 met offspring WABOT-2. The younger one was smarter and impressed people by reading a musical score and playing an electric keyboard.
HONDA’s ASIMO to redefine future of work
Upon drawing the attention of an individual’s curiosity, and research interest of university professors and students, the idea of humanoid inspired car company HONDA. In fact, almost four decades ago, Honda got involved in exploring profitable business opportunities out of the idea of humanoid. In the 1980s, HONDA started R&D for developing two-legged walking robots. Extensive R&D efforts over two decades gave birth to the dream humanoid in 2000. Its name is ASIMO– “Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility”. ASIMO, standing 130 cm and weighing 54 kg, can walk, run, dance, play shocker, and even play musical instruments. Moreover, with the ability to recognize moving objects, postures, gestures, sounds, direction, distance, and faces through visual information captured by two cameras “eyes”, ASIMO behaved like very much Human indeed.
Softbank’s Pepper robot
In 2014, Japanese Softbank created a sensation by unveiling the humanoid—Pepper. Upon analyzing expressions and voice tones, Pepper can detect emotion. Due to their emotion detection ability, Pepper robots have found the job to work as a receptionist at several offices in the UK, and other countries. They are able to identify visitors with the use of facial recognition. Subsequently, they send alerts for meeting organizers, and in the meantime, they can also chat autonomously with prospective clients. With an initial sale of 1,000 units within just 60 secs of its initial offer in 2015, by May 2018, 12,000 Pepper robots had been sold in Europe. They are mostly in use for the purpose of greetings and entertainment.
Sophia, humanoid to get first citizenship
After Pepper, Hanson Robotics unveiled Sophia with a social sensation in 2016. Sophia, having Human-like silicone skin, and the ability to interact with people and display more than 50 facial expressions, has participated in many high-profile interviews. Her impressive human look and track record of interaction with dignitaries made her eligible as the first-ever robot to be granted citizenship of a country.
Comparative advantage determines the future of work for humanoid robots
As observed in ancient philosophical writings, human beings have a natural tendency to generate ideas for Getting jobs done better. Often such ideas are for developing machines to delegate roles from human workers. This urge led to the imagination of creating Human-like machines. For example, in 50 AD, Greek mathematician Hero of Alexandria described a machine for automatically pouring wine for party guests. Prior to that, the Liezi described an automaton in 250 BC. The underpinning of all these thoughts, ideas, and demonstrations has been building machines to delegate roles from humans. But the ultimate decision of role delegation is made based on comparative advantages. Humanoid or Human, who should be assigned, depends on the comparative advantage.
Humanoids should not only look like humans. They should also have the capability to perform better than human beings to qualify to get work from humans. Moreover, the cost of getting those work done should be less than it takes to get executed by human workers. Technology feasibility and economic viability determine the future of work—whether to be performed by humans or humanoids.
Humans’ Innate abilities challenge the purpose of humanoid robots
There is a need for an array of capabilities to qualify for executing tasks. Some of those capabilities human beings earn. We call them earned abilities. And others they inherit by born. Capabilities they are blessed with by born are known as innate abilities. Among the earned abilities are codified as well as tacit knowledge and skills. Some of them are earned through formal education and training. They are called codified abilities. And the rest is earned through experience, known as tacit abilities. In four categories, human beings have 52 innate abilities. These categories are i. Cognitive, ii. Physical, iii. Psychomotor and iv. Sensory.
Some of the specific innate abilities are (i) “the ability to make precisely coordinated movements of the fingers of one or both hands to grasp, manipulate, or assemble very small objects, ii. the ability to choose quickly between two or more movements in response to two or more different signals (lights, sounds, pictures); it includes the speed with which the correct response is started with the hand, foot, or other body parts, and iii. The ability to focus on a single source of sound in the presence of other distracting sounds.”
Human beings use many of those innate abilities in performing diverse tasks in their daily life. Even a simple task like pouring tea for guests or wiping the body requires many of these abilities. Often some of the tasks appear to be mundane and also repeatable. But it’s highly complex to build required innate abilities in machines to execute them.
Challenges in imitating humans’ capability questions the purpose of humanoid robots
We build machines with inanimate materials. We create task execution abilities in machines through design. It has been found that building abilities similar to human beings’ codified ability are the easiest. Of course, we need a suitable technology core. The maturity of information technology helped us build machines with the ability to automate Codified knowledge. Hence, we have been witnessing a net job loss in the middle layer. Developing a machine’s ability to automate tacit abilities is the next challenge. There have been some signs of progress though on this front. However, the hardest part is to imitate humans’ innate abilities in machines for creating the future of work for humanoids.
Humanoids should have human-like innate abilities to take over certain works from humans. For example, Honda wanted ASIMO to take over nursing works from humans. But they necessitate a significant amount of innate abilities. Some of them are knowing the state of mind of older adults from facial expressions or providing a soft touch to the forehand. These innate abilities are highly intuitive to human beings, but they are extremely complex to build in machines.
Honda’s ASIMO retires before causing creative destruction
Upon observing the demonstration of the idea humanoid, Honda’s management got into it to develop a wave of profitable innovations around it. Among many applications, the possibility of using humanoid in offering nursing care to the growing elderly population inspired Honda. Initially, it was a technology challenge to build mechanical machines having the capability of human-like physical organs and walking capability. Obviously, the next challenge was to develop human-like sensing and perception capability. Honda has had some successes in building these abilities in ASIMO. But, Honda’s team found it quite insurmountable to develop innate abilities like the fine movement of fingers or the ability to offer human-like soft touch.
Upon facing this reality, Honda discontinued the development of ASIMO in 2018. In fact, it has been a disappointment to the Robotics community. Some of us were anticipating that the ASIMO program would keep progressing in creating the humanoid Innovation wave of creative destruction. Of course, there was also apprehension that Robots would take over all kinds of works from humans. It appears that our advancement to imitate human beings’ innate ability in machines will determine the future of work for humanoids and also for humans. As a result, the purpose of humanoid robots to mimic humans has been caught in a chasm.
Humanoid and automation–raising the question of the purpose of humanoid robots
The purpose of humanoid robots has been to mimic humans’ physical and cognitive capabilities so that humanoids can take over work from humans. However, humanoids are still in a primitive stage. So far, the development of all kinds of humanoid robots has been limited to creating sensation and fear factors about the future of work. They need to make further advancements to take tasks requiring soft touch from humans. But that does not mean that human beings are not losing work to automation. Human-like intelligence capabilities are now present in production machinery. Of course, they do not look like humanoids. Nevertheless, they are increasingly taking over roles from humans. For example, from packaging to sorting, automation is taking over many tasks from humans.
In fact, the journey of automation started with the idea of creating a human-like machine creature. It started more than 2000 years ago. Nevertheless, its progression is slow. Humanoids look and behave like human beings. Even it’s not difficult to develop codified knowledge abilities in them. But the challenge seems to hinge on building innate abilities. However, for these abilities, human beings did not invest. Despite this, they are highly difficult to build in machines. For example, human drivers use many innate abilities in driving automobiles through busy cross-sections.
The advancement of sensors, computing machinery, and software gave the impression that it would be a feasible target to develop human-like driving capability. In fact, this impression gave birth to the autonomous vehicle concept. However, upon spending more than $80 billion in R&D, we are getting the hard lesson indeed. Indeed, it’s far more complex than initially estimated to build humans’ innate abilities in automobiles. In brief, our progress in facing this reality will determine the future of work for humanoid robots, and also for humans. Hence, it’s fair to conclude that current development is far from meeting the purpose of humanoid robots.