In August 2021, Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed the company’s plan to produce a humanoid robot called “Optimus”. The announcement, accompanied by a dancing actor in a tight robot costume, was ridiculed by skeptics, but Tesla is not alone in its quest to create humanoid machines.
Research laboratories and companies around the world are investing large sums of money in these complex robots, for use from warehouses to nursing homes. Their pitch is two-fold: the human form is relatable, and it fits seamlessly into our existing infrastructure. These reasons are reasonable, but there may be a better way forward.
Humanoids, sometimes called the ‘holy grail’ of robotics, are robots with a torso, two legs, two arms and a head. Google image search the word “robot” and your browser will be filled with images of humanoids.
Some robot creators argue that the autonomous machines we will interact with in the future must look like us, because we relate best to other people. I have found in my own research that we connect emotionally to machines onto which we can project our own characteristics, but the notion that we mostly relate to a human form may be missing something.
People name their robot vacuum. Would they like it better if there was a humanoid walking around vacuuming? Probably not. When something has a human form, we have very different expectations of its intelligence and how it will perform. Our current robots do not live up to these expectations, nor do we want a robot butler anytime soon.
Fortunately for robot designers, things don’t need to be human-like for us to relate to them—they just need to mimic cues that we recognize. Artists and animators have perfected the art of capturing our emotional expression and then putting it into other forms – think Bambi, Carsor the Pixar lamp.
Japanese cities have attracted visitors with mascots such as Kumamon, a simple, cute bear figure created by the Kumamoto Prefecture government to boost tourism. And thousands of Star Wars fans love R2-D2, who is basically a tin can on wheels and even more emotionally compelling than most humanoids.
Avoiding the human form when designing robots not only avoids the problem of expectation management, it can also sidestep a minefield of social injustices. For example, researchers from the University of Bielefeld, Germany, found that people will rate a humanoid robot with long hair as better suited for stereotypically female tasks such as household and care work and less suited for performing technical repairs, compared to an identical robot with short hair. .
Previous studies have also shown that artificial agents with human faces are seen as more attractive, trustworthy, persuasive and intelligent when they are of the same ethnicity as the person evaluating them. Technology that looks too human not only reflects our biases, it can also entrench and perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
It’s also the logistical argument for humanoid robots: we live in a world built for humans, with stairs and doorknobs and narrow passages. To navigate these spaces, some designers say, we need robots built like us. It is certainly true that many areas are difficult to navigate with wide bodies, wheels or steps. But when we look to the future, perhaps there are better choices.
Robots can be smaller than the eye can see, or bigger than a house. They can be encased in metals or soft materials. They can roll, climb, slide, jump or glide from point A to B. According to roboticist Prof Robin Murphy of Texas A&M University, the best shape is “whatever shape gets the job done”.
Ironically, challenging the notion that the “right way” to do things is the way people do them creates opportunities to reach broader human demographics, especially people who are often left out of the design process.
Laurel Riek, a roboticist at the University of California, San Diego, has pointed out that instead of throwing our funds into expensive, difficult-to-build, bipedal humanoid robots, we can invest in making infrastructure more wheelchair-, walker- and stroller-friendly . If a wheelchair can access a space, so can a simple and efficient robot on wheels.
Humans are far from uniform in our construction and capabilities, and if we design our world to reflect that, we can radically increase accessibility while developing better, cheaper robots with a wider range of skills. And besides, why take the stairs when you can climb the walls?
While there will always be some uses for humanoid robots, perhaps we can do better for work, friendship, and society than by replicating what we already have. As robots move from behind factory walls to shared spaces, robotics presents us with an amazing opportunity: it allows us to think outside of ourselves, not only in the design of our robots, but also in our ideas for how to construct a better world.
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