Ameca looks at you with sapphire blue eyes when you ask her a question. Is there a hint of a smile on that face? “Yes, I am a robot”, is the answer. Another Ameca, who is standing nearby with three others, watches with interest and tries to join. “Right now, he’s the worst guest ever,” says Will Jackson, who made Ameca. He “he joins every conversation and never stops talking.”
Mr. Jackson, who runs a small robotics company in Falmouth, England called Engineered Arts, is trying to solve this problem. The Amecas are being taught to recognize faces and know who is paying attention or making eye contact during conversations using the cameras in their eyes. This is another step in the long and complicated process of making robots that look and act like people and can live and work with people safely. Ameca and other robots show that a lot of progress is being made in this direction.
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There are also some big players getting into the business. Elon Musk, who runs Tesla, SpaceX and Twitter, showed off Optimus on September 30. He was a crude, faceless prototype who slowly walked up the stage and waved to the crowd. It was made of parts that were easy to find. Tesla’s parts were then used to make a version that was even better. Although he still couldn’t walk, Musk said progress was being made and that when it was mass-produced, the price could drop to around $20,000 per unit.
One should be in every home.
That’s a tenth of what basic Ameca costs. Mr. Jackson was there when Optimus was introduced and he agrees that prices will come down as more are made. (He has already sold 11 Amecas and plans to open a factory in the United States to make more.) But he isn’t sure what Musk is suggesting. At the event, video was shown of Optimus parts moving in a Tesla factory. But the world’s most successful robots are already at work in car factories, moving parts, welding and painting parts, and assembling cars. Since it is not necessary, these robots do not look like people.
Mr. Jackson says that making machines that look like people is done so they can do jobs that require them to interact with people. With a little more work, Ameca could be friends with an older person, watching over her, telling her when he’s going to start her favorite TV show, and never getting tired of reminding people over and over again. Engineered Arts wants to teach its robots to play board games like chess so they can do it. But so well that they can still make mistakes and get beaten.
Mr. Jackson says that a robot needs a face to be able to talk well with people. “The human face is the best tool we have for communication,” he points out. “With your face, you can say more than with your voice.” So Ameca’s face, which is made of electronically moving latex skin, is very expressive.
Although the company started out making animated figures for the entertainment industry and can make very realistic faces, Ameca’s phizog is made to look like a robot from a science fiction story. His skin is gray, his joints are fair, and he is hairless. So it doesn’t fall into the “uncanny valley”. “An illusion that occurs when a computer-made being changes from looking obviously non-human to looking more human, but not human enough. At this point, people are upset about how it looks. Again, the comfort level increases as the similarities to humans become almost perfect.
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But some robotics specialists try to achieve this level of perfection. Robots can do more than just help people. They can also act as your avatars. The director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University in Japan, Ishiguro Hiroshi, has created one that looks just like him. He recently showed off another one that looks like Japan’s digital minister Kono Taro. The idea is that people can use their own voice to speak through their avatar or someone else’s voice that has been modified to sound like them. It seems that Mr. Kono’s avatar will replace the minister in public relations events.
Ameca could also function as an avatar, although it looks less like a person. Her conversation is more interesting. Her ability to talk a lot comes from an artificial intelligence program called the big language model that she talks to over Wi-Fi and the Internet.
Engineered Arts is also creating hardware and software that will make it easy to quickly incorporate the latest advances in computer vision into its robots. Mr. Jackson openly admits that Ameca needs to work on other issues as well. When asked if he can walk, the robot replies, “Unfortunately, I can’t, but I hope I can soon.” I’m glued to the ground until then.” In a nearby corner, a set of test legs is ready to go.
When it comes to manufacturing humanoid robots, different companies take different approaches. Since Mr. Jackson was born into a family of automata-making artists, it was only natural that he would make modern versions of them for places like theme parks, museums, and the movie business. These have become more complicated over time. Some function as guides that you can talk to. Some are used by universities as places to conduct research. During the covid lockdown, when business came to a halt, the company put all its efforts into manufacturing the Ameca, its most advanced model to date.
Other developers, like Tesla, can organize much bigger projects, but not always successfully, as the case of Honda shows. At one point, ASIMO, a small humanoid robot made by Honda and named for Isaac Asimov, who wrote science fiction stories about robots, was thought to be the most advanced in the world. The company began work on this project in the 1980s. ASIMO could walk, albeit awkwardly, understand voice commands and move objects, but Honda canceled the project in 2018 to focus on more useful robots, such as those that help the elderly. let’s move.
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Robotics is a hobby for some people who have turned it into a business. Shadow Robot is a London company that makes one of the most humane robotic hands on the market. It was started by hobbyists who would gather in the attic of the founder’s house. However, most groups have emerged from universities. One of the best known is Boston Dynamics, which started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Atlas, who looks like the Hulk, has become a hit on the internet due to videos of him running, jumping and doing backflips. But Atlas is primarily a research project that would be too expensive to run. The company sells a robot that can walk but has four legs and is called Spot. He looks like a dog.
One of the benefits of a two-legged robot is that it should be able to go anywhere a person can. That means walking on uneven ground and going up and down steps. Agility Robotics in Corvallis, Oregon made the Digit, which can do this.
Digit is based on Cassie, a walking torso that was made at Oregon State University by studying how people move using machine learning. In May, she ran 100 meters faster than any other robot. He took 24.7 seconds, much longer than Usain Bolt’s 9.6 seconds.
Digit differs from Cassie in that he has a chest, arms, and sort of hands, but no fingers. Instead of a head, he has lidar, which is like radar but works with lasers to make a three-dimensional model of the world around him. Jonathan Hurst, Agility’s CTO, says Digit isn’t meant to look like a person. Instead, it’s a “human-centered” robot that’s meant to help people do more.
One of Digit’s first jobs will likely be at a distribution center run by an online retailer or shipping company. Some places already use automated freight handling, but usually it’s in areas that are fenced off so people can’t get hurt. Elsewhere, tasks still require a lot of work. Digit could start to change this by making it work securely with people. For example, you could move and stack boxes (see image). The job could then move on to unloading trucks and then making home deliveries by transporting items from the van to the door. The goal is to be able to talk to the robot and tell it what to do.
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Agility wants to do a lot of Digit by 2024. It is working with several large delivery companies, which have not been named, to find safe ways for Digit to work with people. If the robot’s sensors detect someone, it will stop and circle around them. However, Dr. Hurst says that he will soon have a simpler face to help show what he wants to do. For example, a pair of animated eyes will look in a certain direction to show where they are going, and a glance at someone will show that they have seen them.
do no harm
For robots to work well with people, they will need these types of security systems. At the moment, most product liability and safety rules govern how they are used. However, some people say that special laws will be needed to ensure that robots are used safely. As every science fiction fan knows, Asimov came up with these ideas 80 years ago. These are:
But all science fiction fans know that Asimov’s stories are often about how these laws don’t work as expected.
Dr. Hurst says this about his digits: “I think they are very safe. But to prove this, we need real statistics and a regulatory environment.”
Mr. Musk, for his part, said that Optimus would have a device that could be used as a stop button if necessary. The robot itself would be connected to Wi-Fi, but the switch would not. Because of this, the switch was kept separate to prevent interference from afar.
When it comes to making sure the Amecas are safe, Mr. Jackson takes an engineering approach. He realizes that human limbs don’t hurt other people because they are stiff and soft at the same time. Unfortunately, robots do not yet have the small, powerful actuators that would be needed to do this. He’s working on it though, because he won’t help teach an Ameca manners if he later makes the social mistake of bumping into you.
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