Recorded history tells that since 250 BC, human beings are after building humanoid robots. Why are people after human-like creatures? It’s often due to the urge of getting jobs done better. For example, in 50 AD, Hero of Alexandria described a machine that automatically pours drinks for party guests. Unlike other creatures, human beings have an inherent urge of recreating themselves to delegate roles of performing tasks. It has been a reoccurring observation in ancient philosophical writings. Carl Marx in his thesis on the market economy referred to it as Praxis. It’s about pursuing ideas for finding means of getting our purposes served increasingly better at a decreasing cost while giving us more comfort. In this endeavor, they have been making humanoid robots. One after another of them has been showing up and disappearing, though. This endeavor has become a Seesaw Play of Humanoid Robots.
We have been creating one after another humanoid. Upon failing to meet expectations in getting our job done better, we start all over again. Perhaps, it is an unstoppable urge. They keep trying to reinvent an idea until they succeed in making it suitable to get envisioned job done better. In this venture, the idea is to recreate a human-like machine. The target is to get numerous jobs done automatically. Of course, we are not there yet. But, how are we getting the inspiration to keep trying? In fact, praxis underpins the humanoid Robot making the journey, lasting over more than 2000 years.
A long journey of evolution of humanoid robot
To promote innovation, a UN organization United Nations Development Program has appointed a humanoid robot Sophia as innovation ambassador in 2017. We are quite impressed with the human-like impression of this social robot. It might be surprising to us that in 1206, a Muslim polymath Al-Jazari described a humanoid for performing more than fifty facial and body actions during each musical selection. He also developed humanoid servants for handwashing, a Humanoid robot mahout striking a cymbal on the half-hour, and also a programmable “castle clock” featuring five musicians. The list is quite long from Leonardo da Vinci’s humanoid robot armored knight to Honda’s ASIMO. In recent times, there has been a surge among the youths to build humanoids.
Unfolding technology possibilities–fueling seesaw play of humanoid robots
In the beginning, building humanoid robots was quite complex. For example, Ismail al-Jazari invented water wheels with cams on their axle to operate automata. In pursuing his mission of humanoids, he also created an early crankshaft in 1206 for transforming continuous rotary motion, like the one produced by the water wheel, into linear reciprocating motion.
At the age of 21 in 1820, Tanaka Hisashige, a well-known Japanese inventor and founder of Toshiba, perfected autonomous dolls. These Karakuri dolls were capable of performing relatively complex movements. He had to rely on pneumatics, hydraulics, springs and air-pressurized fuel pump to pull, stretch, and move a thread to move joints. This technology was widely used in perfecting the Japanese tea serving doll. The concealment of the inner workings of the doll evoked a sense of awe. The challenge of perfecting the underlying mechanisms of traditional Japanese mechanized puppets or automata kept many inventors busy in the 17th to 19th centuries. Despite having human-like movements of their organs, they could not listen, see or speak like humans, though. Consequentially, the hype of the Karakuri doll started fading out.
In the age of Artificially Intelligence— Seesaw Play of Humanoid Robots is gaining further momentum
The availability of micro motors and controllers in the 1990s reduced the complexity of developing joints and programming them to show movements of arms, fingers, and other organs. Even it allowed creating fine movements of small organs like eyebrows, ears, or eyeballs. The growing power of mobile phone handsets has reduced the complexity of building human-like additional abilities in humanoids. Some of them are voice recognition, speech synthesization, vision, sensation, and auditory capabilities. Without facing many difficulties, even school-going students are now developing humanoids around these technologies. These humanoids are impressing us with their abilities to recognize people and participate in conversations.
Moreover, with the help of micro motors, these humanoids also show subtle gestures with their leaps, eyes, hands, and fingers. In addition to it, mobile internet connections, multi-gigabyte storage, and neural network-based learning apps give the impression that these modern humanoids are quite capable of learning and growing like humans. Consequently, we are witnessing dozens of artificially intelligent humanoid robot-making projects in every major country of the world.
The emergence of super creatures to take over the human race gives a twist to the seesaw play of humanoid robots
These humanoid robots showing human-like intelligence have stretched our imagination. As if, we are on the verge of recreating ourselves, the ultimate frontier of praxis. The excitement of such success has also made us apprehensive about the future of ourselves. It’s so much so that the Government of Saudi Arabia granted citizenship to humanoid robot Sophia. The UNDP has appointed her as an innovation ambassador. In the recent past, we have seen a burst of publications on the possibilities of robotics and the future of work. Starting from influential individuals to global thinks tanks like the World Economic Forum, numerous powerful actors have joined the bandwagon of spreading the message of the arrival of super creatures—artificially intelligent humanoid robots. Along with mass job loss fear, there is also a concern about whether these AI creatures will take over the human race.
Changing technology core is fueling creative waves
Over the last 2000 years, to meet the urge of recreating themselves in the form of humanoid robots, human beings are also updating the technology core. In the 1200s, technologies around the water wheel were powering the journey of developing human-like creatures. During the 17th-19th century, inventors relied on pneumatics and hydraulics to fine-tune movements of joints with strings. The late 20th century offered micro-controllers and micromotors as a substitute to mechanical technology core. At the dawn of the 21st century, inventors got smartphones based a set of component technologies to build humanoid robots. Till the beginning of the 21st century, the humanoid building exercise was confined within imitating the mechanical motion of human organs, though.
Contrary to it, smartphone-based technology enables us to create human-like cognitive capabilities like vision, touch, speech, memorization, and learning. Humanoids like Robot Sophia or Rashmi having this cognitive capability have been repeating the awe creation era of Japanese Karakuri dolls. Of course, unlike tea serving Karakuri dolls, these humanoids can impress dignitaries by exchanging greetings and participating in conversations.
From praxis to idea economy–turning the idea of humanoid into innovation business
The long journey of making humanoid robots culminated in a major initiative of profitably exploiting this idea. In 1986, Honda embarked on exploiting the commercial opportunity. As opposed to entertaining and creating awe impression, Honda targeted delivering service to the growing elderly population of Japan. Almost after more than a decade, Honda unveiled Humanoid Robot ASIMO in 2000. So far, it was the most advanced humanoid made to date. It created a new wave of sensation across the globe. ASIMO traveled all around the world, signaling the beginning of a new era. It was the era of humanoid robots serving humans. It’s a new era indeed.
Honda’s R & D team kept improving ASIMO, further making it capable of listening, seeing, and serving. It also qualified to work at a cafe in Tokyo. Moreover, it impressed visiting US president by kicking a soccer ball towards him in 2014. Of course, ASIMO impressed many of us, and it keeps impressing visitors at the Science Museum in Tokyo. Nonetheless, it failed to attain eligibility to deliver elderly care services. Upon reviewing the signs of progress and assessing the complexity of making ASIMO eligible for target jobs, HONDA decided to stop further R&D on improving ASIMO in 2018.
Complexity in developing humans’ innate capability in humanoids
In this long journey, human beings have invented many humanoids. The recorded history tells us that we have come up with more than 80 versions. Of course, we are making progress. Upon fine-tuning macro joint movements to acquire walking capability, we have made recent success in adding cognitive capabilities. Nevertheless, the progress is insufficient to deploy humanoid robots to deliver service as a better replacement to humans. In fact, even a simple task requires a set of humans’ innate capabilities. Even the most modern humanoid robots cannot deliver a single of them. As a result, the sensation of creating the next version does not last long. Of course, at the beginning of the emergence of the next version, people get excited.
Subsequently, they find that awe impression is not good enough to meet their expectation of getting the job done better by deploying or recruiting them. Consequently, the excitement fades away. In the end, those humanoids disappear. Either they are tuned into scraps, or they are showcased in Museum. After a while, we wake up and start making another better version. As a result, we keep watching the seesaw play of humanoid robots. On the other hand, industrial robots are not showing such play, as they have been performing some meaningful tasks.
Will ever Robots take over the human race?
Despite facing a series of excitements followed by disappointments over the last 2000 years, human beings are not going to stop. The current wave of the hype centered around artificially intelligent humanoid robots like Sophia, having the human-like cognitive capability, will likely disappear soon. Upon finding no practical use of Sophia or her cousins, we will either turn them into scraps or showcase them in the Museum. Nonetheless, we will wake up again and make better versions. Over time, we will succeed in making them eligible to get some of our jobs done. By the way, already SoftBank’s Pepper Robot has started to take on a few tasks like greeting visitors. However, we might not be able to recreate ourselves, as we do not know many things about ourselves.
Moreover, the journey of knowing ourselves fully might turn out to be a never-ending one. Despite having this limitation, unlikely, the human race will stop in keep taking attempts in recreating themselves. Consequently, we will keep watching the Seesaw play of humanoid robots for a never-ending period.