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Humanizing Robots SoC1058 December 2018

Author: Martin Schwirn (Send us feedback.)

P0935 — Humanoids, Stand Up! from 2016 presents developments in the creation of humanoid robots—robots that look and move like humans do. For example, the Pattern discusses the Atlas humanoid robot by Boston Dynamics, which was part of Alphabet (Mountain View, California) at the time but now belongs to SoftBank Group Corp. (Tokyo, Japan). The Pattern also mentions a project that aims to develop humanoid robots for use in aircraft manufacturing. The Joint Robotics Laboratory (JRL; Tsukuba, Japan)—a partnership between the National Center for Scientific Research (Paris, France) and the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (Tokyo, Japan)—is working on the project with aerospace company Airbus Group (Leiden, Netherlands). Finally, the Pattern highlights a collaboration between SRI International (Menlo Park, California) and Yamaha Motor Company (Iwata, Japan) that produced Motobot—an autonomous motorcycle-riding humanoid robot. The quest to design humanlike robots and give them human qualities continues.

Some humanoid robots possess human traits.

In many cases, why a robot requires a human appearance remains unclear. For example, JRL's robot features a clearly human appearance, but robots from other projects perform similar tasks to those that JRL's robot performs but have a more utilitarian and machinelike appearance. The Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanced Materials (Fraunhofer Society for the Advancement of Applied Research; Munich, Germany) worked with an industrial consortium to develop a robot capable of autonomously moving to components in aircraft-manufacturing facilities and performing tasks that the components require. Although application areas of the JRL and Fraunhofer robots overlap, the Fraunhofer robot is a versatile robot arm on an almost rectangular moving platform and features no resemblance to humans.

Nevertheless, recent efforts have resulted in impressive showcases of how far the capabilities of humanoid robots have evolved. Researchers from the Walt Disney Company (Burbank, California) are developing Stuntronics—humanoid robots that can perform high-flying acrobatic stunts. A demonstration video shows a robot that a viewer could easily mistake for a human on first sight. A rope system flings the robot into the air, where it performs various spins, flips, and poses before landing safely in a net. In 2011, NASA (Washington, DC) sent its manually operated Robonaut 2 humanoid robot to the International Space Station (ISS). NASA's humanoid robot made the trip to the ISS as cargo, but two humanoid robots from the Russian Foundation for Advanced Research Projects (Moscow, Russia) FEDOR (Final Experimental Demonstration Object Research) program will in 2019 fly on an unmanned spacecraft to the ISS as crew members instead of as cargo. Researchers recently demonstrated that the bipedal FEDOR robots can drive, perform push-ups, lift weights, and shoot a gun. The countries developing such humanoid robots claim that the purpose of doing so is to explore new avenues of collaborative work between robots and humans; however, these countries likely have additional purposes for developing such robots, including to flaunt their technological capabilities in front of their competitors.

Some humanoid robots possess human traits so they can interact with people effectively and collaboratively. Developers do not necessarily have to make an entire robot look human, but giving a robot some human characteristics and quirks can have a strong positive effect on communications between people and the robot. For example, researchers at the Honda Research Institute (Honda Motor Company; Tokyo, Japan) developed Haru—a prototype social robot that looks like an animated character. The robot somewhat resembles a desk lamp, consisting of a half-sphere base from which a vertical stand supports two square displays. A light-emitting-diode (LED) array in the base lights up to create the appearance of a mouth, and animated eyes appear on the two square displays. These features enable Haru to convey a great deal of emotional expression despite being only vaguely humanoid. Haru should help the researchers gain a better understanding of how humans will react to and interact with machines that feature humanlike elements. Similarly, Jaguar Land Rover (Tata Group; Mumbai, India) is using animated eyes in efforts to develop ways for autonomous cars to communicate with pedestrians. The company mounted large animated eyes to the front of boxy autonomous vehicles that it is testing on an indoor track that mimics a real-world street scene. The animated eyes look at pedestrians to ensure them that the vehicle has noticed them and will not run into them as they cross the street. Although representations of eyes have very obvious functionalities in communicating a machine's intent to humans, researchers are looking at other options as well. For example, researchers at Cornell University (Ithaca, New York) have developed a robot with tactile skin that changes texture to indicate the robot's emotional state (the robot develops goosebumps when it is "happy" and spikes when it is "angry").

P0748 — Market-Research Evolution from 2015 discusses the emotion-recognition technologies of Pepper—a 120-centimeter-tall humanoid robot developed by SoftBank Group Corp. subsidiary SoftBank Robotics. SoftBank Robotics recently partnered with emotion-recognition-application developer Affectiva (Boston, Massachusetts) to increase Pepper's emotional intelligence. Affectiva's AI technology will enable Pepper to identify nuanced cognitive states in people by analyzing their facial and vocal expressions in real time. For example, Pepper will be able to tell the difference between a smile and a smirk and to identify distraction, drowsiness, and other cognitive states. The companies aim to enable Pepper to interact with humans in a way that closely resembles the way that humans interact with one another.

Other researchers are trying to develop a better understanding of how physical interactions between humans and robots could improve applications. During a recent study supported by the Walt Disney Company's Disney Research and the University of British Columbia (Vancouver and Kelowna, Canada), researchers explored how robot posture and movement style affect the way humans interact with a robotic arm for the task of passing a magnetic baton. Researchers tested variations of the movement of the robotic arm in its three phases—moving into the handover position, grasping the object, and taking the object from the person's hand—and discovered that these variations affected how humans attempted to hand off the baton.

Researchers are exploring ways to give robots human looks and emotions and to enable them to engage in meaningful interactions with humans. Eventually, efforts driven mainly by scientific curiosity and technical interest could build the foundation for natural interactions between humans and robots. How the various humanlike functionalities will come together in a coherent, holistic robot is still an area of exploration. Developers will have to find meaningful application areas for and test whether humans will accept and adopt such a robot. Nevertheless, a better understanding of humanoid robots and their features will unveil the robots' commercial potential.