The future of robots is working alongside humans, and to do that effectively, they will need to behave more like us.

Robotics Blog: Why Robots Should Develop Human-Like Skills

Nov 8, 2021

by Carlos M. Gonzalez

There is no denying that robots are on the rise. The Spot robot from Boston Dynamics is being used to police the streets, the robot Marty roams the aisles of grocery stores scanning shelves, and the NEURA robot autonomously drives itself around the factory floor, helping workers with everyday tasks.
 
According to the International Federation of Robotics, the sales value of service robots increased by 32 percent in 2019 and is expected to increase due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Robots became valuable tools to help promote social distancing, working in times and places that humans could not.
 
As we see an increase in robots, it is more important that their development start to mirror how humans function and work. The reason is simple: It is easier to develop humanoid robots to fit into our society than change how society operates. As predicted by the World Economic Forum’s “The Future of Jobs Report 2020,” by 2025, 34 percent of businesses look to expand their workforce due to technology integration, and the time spent on current tasks by humans and machines will be equal. Robots will not replace humans but rather work side by side with them. This means that robots need to adapt to the human environment and be able to function within it.

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As of today, mechanically speaking, robots and humans do not move in the same manner. Amy LaViers, director at The Robotics, Automation and Dance Lab, points out the difference between how a robot moves versus a human. “No robot really moves like we do. A human backflip leverages an articulated spine, heavy hips thrusting through the air whipped by floating vertebrae. By contrast, the backflipping Atlas robot built by Massachusetts firm Boston Dynamics begins its somersault at the ankles, tipping its hulking middle off a wooden block to induce a fall. The only similarities are a start, rotation and finish,” she wrote in an article for Nature.com.
 
LaViers argues that for humans and robots to cooperate, their movements must complement one another, providing a sense of familiarity and comfort. “Although the vision for most robots is that they will blend into our lives as caregivers or guides, they struggle to interact with humans or to operate in changing environments. Roboticists need to learn more about how humans move and the ways in which we physically outpace our artificial counterparts. This means studying body language as well as anatomy…. Humans need to be able to recognize what a robot will do,” she wrote.

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In a recent interview with BCC Research, Oleg Kivokurtsev, cofounder of Promobot, discussed why robots should look like humans. Promobot is a leader in mechatronics, AI, and robot autonomy since 2013. They have produced seven robot models and have delivered 562 robots worldwide.
 
“There is a phenomenon in robotics called the Uncanny Valley. In layman’s terms, it means that no matter how effective a device is, the human will only start using it once the device features a so-called friendly social interface. According to the Uncanny Valley Theory, the friendliest social interface will always possess human-like features. On a psychological level, it means that most devices will inevitably feature a human-like appearance, as it is a part of the human psyche,” Kivokurtsev said.
 
Several roboticists disagree with the narrowing of the “Uncanny Valley” effect. Dor Skuler, cofounder and chief executive of Intuition Robotics, spoke with BBC News on how he believes it is ethically wrong for robots to pretend to be humans. He argues that people will feel betrayed by robots imitating human behavior and ultimately revolt against their assistance.
 
While roboticists may argue the ethics of a robot looking, sounding, and talking like humans, the latest research driving robotic innovation looks to provide robots with tools to operate more freely in a human environment.

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The finalists of the 16th Award for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Robotics & Automation (IERA) showcase the latest skills robots have acquired to assist humans at work. The intelligent RG2-FT gripper from OnRobot can “feel” and pick up delicate materials like glass or test samples. The other finalist is the high-resolution MotionCam-3D from Photoneo that provides quick capture 3D scans of moving objects, able to help humans detect and inspect objects. Both of these devices give robots human-like abilities, making them more capable workers in a human environment.
 
Carlos M. González is special projects manager.
 

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