After massive PR, have humanoid robots broken down?

A world of human-robot coexistence is the prediction humans have always made for the future. Hong Kong-based Sophia has taken the internet by storm after being one of the most real-life humanoid robots. It remains relevant and popular even today. However, promises such as Tesla’s humanoid robot or Boston Dynamics’ robot dog have only been half-fulfilled. While the rest of the AI ​​industry is creating disruptive innovations like GPT-3 and AlphaFold, the robotics industry seems to be struggling.

Robots, or the idea, have been around since Leonardo da Vinci’s robotic humanoid in 1495 and are alive in cultures like Japanese mecha and Jewish golems. Today, companies like Boston Dynamics, Hanson Robotics, Engineered Arts, Softbank Group, Honda Motors, Qihan Technology, Agility Robotics, and Promobo lead the robotics industry.

BBC Research predicted the market to grow from US$2.1 billion in 2020 to US$7.9 billion in 2025. Similarly, Research&Market reports estimated that the industry is expected to grow from US$1.5 billion US dollars in 2021 to US$5.6 billion by 2026, an annual growth of 30.12%. .

Despite optimistic predictions, robotics companies don’t seem to be thriving as they hoped when they started. Some of the more recent humanoid robots include America by the Engineered Arts, a robot capable of human-like movements and facial expressions, so much so that it is almost strange. America can wiggle her eyebrows, blink her eyes, open her mouth and curl her fingers – almost like us humans. But the robot channels the strange valley like no other. The Sophia, once a milestone, was strongly criticized by experts, including Yann Lecun. The model does not live up to the advertising of the startup. While the humanoid has attracted media attention, LeCun says that in their attempt to build intelligent machines, researchers must find new theories, principles, methods and algorithms that have near- and medium-term applications.

Last year, Musk introduced Optimus, a humanoid robot being developed to eliminate dangerous, repetitive and boring tasks. Musk said the prototype would be ready “next year”. However, there has been no update on the robot yet.

SoftBank launched Pepper in 2014. It was the first humanoid robot to read emotions and sold for $1,650 in just one minute. But the company on break its production in 2020, saying they would only manufacture the robot when needed. The move comes alongside Softbank’s reduction of its global robotics operations in France. In 2018, Rodney Brooks’ Rethink Robotics went bankrupt due to lack of funds. A year later, San Francisco-based Anki announced bankruptcy after nine years of the company’s existence. Even MIT’s Jibo, called an outstanding social robot for homes, halted the project even after raising over $70 million. Boston Dynamics had a major lift-off after its humanoid dog robot, SPOT, which could navigate terrain with unprecedented mobility and automate some of the toughest robotic challenges. Yet last year, Softbank sold the company to Hyundai for a valuation of $1.1 billion, with the latter acquiring an 80% stake in the company. While Boston Dynamics made a splash in the industry and charmed people with its nimble SPOT trading robot, its high selling price ($74,500) limited its mass market adoption.

Lack of IPOs

Globally, AI and data science companies are going public like never before. Research shows nearly 1,000 companies go public and raise 315 billion dollars at the end of December 2021. History records less than $200 billion so far. The robotics industry is lagging behind. The ROBO Global Robotics and Automation Index ETF notes significant underperformance for robot and automation stocks. The platform has provided investors with an 8.9% return over the past 12 months. To further note, there are hardly any humanoid development companies that have gone public.

Impacts of Semiconductor Shortage

Chips are crucial for robotics, one of the main industries hit by semiconductor supply shortage issues. As a result, humanoid robot manufacturing companies have resorted to sourcing alternative components, purchasing larger quantities, and improvising, but the hit of the shortage has greatly affected production.

The strange valley

A constant challenge with humanoid robots is overcoming the uncomfortable feeling and revulsion people feel when they see robots. The Strange Valley Theory posits that it is unsettling to see humanoid objects appear almost human-like, and humanoid robots are prominent. Jaime Banksassociate professor at Texas University of Technology, described it as an uncanny sense of familiarity seeing that something is human but not quite human. It’s even been claimed that a robot’s gaze can trick humans into thinking we’re interacting socially and slow down our ability to make decisions.

Research conducted by Professor Agnieszka Wykowska at Istituto Italiano Di Tecnologia (IIT) in Genoa says that this gaze is an important social sign of interaction. They demonstrated this with a team of 40 volunteers who were asked to play a “chicken” video game – where each player had to decide between letting a car drive straight into another car or swerving to avoid a collision. There was a humanoid robot sitting across from them when they played the game. Between each round, the player had to look at the robot – and sometimes the robot would also look back. Gaze has been found to slow down the human’s thinking and decision-making process.

In the article, “Discomfort beyond the strange valley,” researchers studied people’s reactions to humanoid robots and people with similar faces. He described people’s reaction as increasingly uncomfortable with the rapid development of technology.

Current state?

We are a far cry from the robots we see in science fiction movies or even the humanoids we aim to create. At best, today’s robots can dance, do tricks, and talk a little, but that’s a far cry from the human assistant we crave. While experts are conflicting on the future of humanoid robots, right now the question that needs to be answered is: have we fallen in love with the idea of ​​robots?

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