The Arrival of Humanoid Robots: Innovative but Still Uneven

by Lucas Garcia
Humanoid Robots

The aspiration to create humanoid robots that parallel human functionality has long been fueled by visions from science fiction. This ambitious endeavor continues to attract significant investment in the era of AI innovation, despite the fact that the latest humanoid prototypes exhibit a certain gracelessness and limited practicality, performing better in contrived demonstrations than in everyday scenarios. Yet, this has not dissuaded various startups from diligently pursuing their development.

Jonathan Hurst, a co-founder and the chief robot officer at Agility Robotics, emphasizes that their goal is not merely to mimic human appearance but to construct robots capable of navigating environments designed for humans. In Pittsburgh, at Agility Robotics’ facility, their robot Digit, designed for warehouse tasks, demonstrates its capabilities, reinforcing Hurst’s focus on function over form.

Digit, employed by Agility Robotics, is specifically designed with a human-focused approach. As it currently stands, Digit’s primary function is to transport tote bins—a functionality that Amazon is exploring for potential use in its warehouses. Following the establishment of a factory in Oregon for mass production, Digit stands as a testament to the blend of human-like form and practical utility.

Sporting a camera-laden head with animated eyes and a body that houses its driving force, Digit has limbs that are curiously avian rather than anthropomorphic, a design choice reflecting digitigrade locomotion akin to that of toe-walking animals.

While Agility Robotics takes a pragmatic path, competitors like Figure AI embrace a more idealistic stance on humanoid robots, positing that only true human replicas can effectively integrate into spaces and roles crafted for people. Figure AI aims to introduce a commercially viable robot with upgradeable capabilities, anticipating a growing demand due to the decline in human labor forces.

Brett Adcock of Figure AI envisions a vast market for humanoid robots, especially as a solution to labor shortages. Nonetheless, despite considerable funding, Figure AI is yet to market a prototype, recently showcasing only a brief glimpse of its robot navigating their test facility.

In the race for humanoid innovation, Tesla, under Elon Musk’s direction, attempts to create Optimus, and nearby, Apptronik presents its Apollo model. Despite varied demonstrations of progress, the industry acknowledges that the journey is incremental and laden with learning opportunities.

Marc Raibert of Boston Dynamics, now under Hyundai, relates that their exploration into humanoids led to the development of a non-humanoid robot that excels in efficiency and adaptability in confined spaces. Such outcomes illustrate how humanoid research can indirectly contribute to advancements in robotic applications.

Sanctuary AI, another company in this field, has prioritized the refinement of robotic manual dexterity over locomotion. Their latest robot, Phoenix, exhibits preliminary abilities that serve as stepping stones towards robots that can comprehend and interact with the world with human-like intelligence.

Agility’s Digit has garnered interest from Amazon for its potential to complement their current robotic systems. Although it is initially tasked with simple tote handling, its presence sparks dialogue about the future of labor and the integration of such technology into society.

Damion Shelton of Agility Robotics projects that robots like Digit will become ubiquitous, integrating into various aspects of life, and hopes they will be seen as a beneficial presence in both industry and daily living, rather than a threat to employment.

This report includes contributions from AP writer Haleluya Hadero.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Humanoid Robots

What is the goal of Agility Robotics in creating humanoid robots?

The goal of Agility Robotics is to create robots capable of operating efficiently in environments designed for humans, focusing on functionality and practical application rather than solely on human-like appearance.

How is Digit, the robot by Agility Robotics, designed to function in warehouses?

Digit is designed to pick up and transport tote bins, complementing the workflow in warehouses. Amazon is considering testing Digits for their operational efficiency in such settings.

What distinguishes Digit’s design from traditional humanoids?

Digit features a head with cameras and animated eyes, and a torso that serves as its engine. It possesses limbs with an avian-like, inverted knee design, reflecting the motion of digitigrade animals, optimizing its movement for specific tasks.

What are the aspirations of Figure AI with their humanoid robots?

Figure AI aspires to develop humanoid robots that can navigate and perform tasks within human-centric spaces, potentially addressing labor shortages with robots capable of undertaking work that humans are either unable or unwilling to do.

How does Sanctuary AI view the challenge of humanoid robotics?

Sanctuary AI believes that the most significant challenge in humanoid robotics is not walking, but developing the ability for robots to understand and interact with the world, manipulating objects with dexterity and intelligence similar to humans.

What are the societal implications of humanoid robots like Digit?

The introduction of humanoid robots like Digit into workspaces, particularly in repetitive and labor-intensive tasks, has implications for the labor market and raises discussions about the balance between technological advancement and job displacement.

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Jake T November 6, 2023 - 6:22 am

Man, its kinda wild to think robots like Digit are walking around warehouses. Saw one in a vid once, it moved like something out of a movie! not sure if we’re ready for this stuff but hey, progress waits for no one, right?

Lia G November 6, 2023 - 8:56 pm

agility’s robots are supposed to be in homes in 20 years?! that’s crazy to think about. I just hope they make them so they can’t chase us around cause those inverted knee things are spooky… just saying

Samantha B November 6, 2023 - 10:37 pm

i just read about these humanoids and it’s fascinating but scary too? Like, what happens to the jobs people are doing now, robots can’t just take over everything… or can they

Marcus P November 7, 2023 - 1:15 am

Heard about Elon Musk’s Optimus robot, the demo was a bit rough around the edges lol. But you gotta admit, starting up a robotics division in a car company is pretty out there. kudos for trying something new though


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