Whether we like it or not, the Age of Robots is upon us. With the rapid growth of technology, and the amount of money being put into robotics labs and Research and Development, it’s no wonder that robots are becoming more and more human and lifelike with each passing year. Just as current personal computer technology grows obsolete every six months, robot technology is outpacing itself year on year.
It isn't a particularly wild stretch to claim that in our lifetime, robots will take over much of our workforce and labor jobs. It's a scary thought - almost as scary as how realistic some of these machines look. That being said, while the hardware and some of the software is becoming increasingly sophisticated, fully-formed artificial intelligence has yet to materialise.
It’s almost impossible for anyone outside the (often secretive) specialisation to gauge the growth potential of robotics technology. Just fifteen years ago there were robots on wheels, who couldn't do much more than moving materials from one place to another. Then there were bipedal robots who could walk like humans.
Now, there are robots that can read and even interact with human emotion and expression. It’s a brave new world. These are ten of the most lifelike humanoid robots that exist in the world today, based on appearance and functionality.
10 BRETT (UC Berkeley)
A team of scientists from UC Berkeley recently unveiled one of the most exciting evolutions in humanoid robots. The robot BRETT (short for the comically named Berkeley Robot for the Elimination of Tedious Tasks), may not look very human, but it employs a new form of artificial intelligence known as Deep Learning.
Deep Learning gives BRETT a way to use sensory and visual information about its environment to build networks of information, resulting in it learning how to do things itself. Examples include: putting LEGOs together, putting a wheeled contraption together through trial-and-error, and more.
As Professor Pieter Abbeel from Berkeley stated, “The key is that when a robot is faced with something new, we won't have to reprogram it.” Basically, it will always be getting smarter. It learns very slowly, but as Abbeel continued, “In the next 5 to 10 years, we may see significant advances in robot learning capabilities through this line of work.”
9 Telenoid (Miraikan)
That being said, the function of Telenoid was designed to humanize long-distance communication as an advanced conferencing tool. Telenoid can capture a user’s voice, face, and head movements, and it even responds to hugs. Audio lessons can be programmed into the Telenoid so it can be used to teach languages.
Elderly people use the Telenoid to communicate with out-of-town family, as a much more human conduit than Skype. Such feedback has been: “Very cute, like my grandchild,” and “very soft and nice to touch.” So despite its semi-frightening appearance, Telenoid is out to bring good to the world.
8 EveR-4 (KITECH)
EveR is a series of female androids created by South Korean scientists from the Korea Institute of Industrial Technology, headed by Baeg Moon-hong. The name EveR is derived from the Biblical name “Eve,” and ‘r’ for robot. The first EveR-1 was built in a year from $321,000 in state funds. The EveR-1 could mimic human emotions such as happiness, sadness, and anger, and it used a hydraulic system for movements.
All of the EveR series have skin made from pliable silicone, making it feel similar to human skin. EveR-3 became the first robot capable of singing, as demonstrated at the 2009 Hannover Fair. EveR-4 built on its predecessors’ success, having more upper-body fluidity, and being able to be fitted with legs. It also has an artificial tongue and mechanical vocal chords. It was exhibited at RoboWorld 2011.
7 Pepper (SoftBank)
In 2014, Masayoshi son, the CEO of wireless carrier SoftBank, exhibited Pepper. He called it the first robot capable of recognizing human emotions. As he announced on June 5, 2014, “Today is the first time in the history of robotics that we are putting emotion into the robot and giving it a heart.”
Pepper has four directional microphones that help it identify the direction of a sound, while also utilizing an infrared 'emotion recognition sensor.’ The robot uses a cloud-based AI to store “collective wisdom,” and the robot constantly evolves because of this pool of wisdom. For example, the robot will remember emotional moments such as blowing out the candle at a birthday, and then store them for later.
Not only that, but Pepper is being sold to consumers at the convenient price of just $2,000. As Hiroshi Ishiguro put it, “Robots are now becoming affordable - no different than owning a laptop.” Time will only tell what Pepper will do for the evolution of humanoid, emotional robots.
6 Kirobo (University of Tokyo)
Kirobo was designed by the University of Tokyo and mastermind roboticist Tomotaka Takahashi, who founded ROBO-GARAGE in 1999. Kirobo is Japan’s first robot astronaut, and it accompanied Koichi Wakata, the Japanese commander of the International Space Station, in 2013. It arrived on an unmanned resupply spacecraft.
The 34-centimeter-tall humanoid looks like a cross between an anime character and a LEGO character. Kirobo can differentiate between different voices, and hold basic conversation. The robot was designed to navigate zero-gravity environments, and to assist Commander Wakata in various experiments.
Kirobo’s main purpose is to see how well robots and humans can interact in space, and to lead the way for robots to be more active in assisting astronauts. It holds two Guinness World Records; one for being the first companion-robot in space, and the second for a robot having a conversation at the highest altitude. Its first words in space were: “Today, a robot took one small step toward a brighter future for all.”
5 Otonaroid and Kodomoroid (Miraikan)
Created by Hiroshi Ishiguro for Japan’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan), Otonaroid and Kodomoroid continue to raise the bar for humanoid robots. Otonaroid (a combination of Japanese words for “adult” and “android”) appears as a Japanese woman in her 30s, and can carry conversation. Kodomoroid (from “child” and “android”) resembles a young girl, and can read in multiple languages, and even respond in a male voice.
Both robots have many facial expressions, can nod, blink, and talk. They are designed to communicate like real people, and will act as robot guides at the Miraikan museum - which just goes to show how robots are taking real jobs away from humans. While they look similar, their functions differ. Kodomoroid will continuously recite news at the museum in different languages, like an RSS reader, while Otonaroid is there to engage in conversations with visitors.
Not all of the functionality is smooth - sometimes their voices are off-sync from their mouth movements, and they move somewhat awkwardly. Still, both robots are clear startling examples of how lifelike robots can look and act, a fact which is starkly apparent by Ishiguro’s exhibition: “Android: What is Human?”
4 PETMAN (DARPA)
The Protection Ensemble Test Mannequin, or PETMAN for short, was designed by the Pentagon’s Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. PETMAN is DARPA’s most human-seeming robot yet. It is bipedal, and has the ability to climb stairs, do push-ups, jog, balance itself, and do calisthenics.
Boston Dynamics outfitted the robot in high-tech camo clothes, designed to keep soldiers safe from hazardous chemicals. It maintains a micro-climate inside its clothes, and regulates its temperature by sweating. Scientists programmed PETMAN to “simulate human physiology.”
When it's exposed to chemical agents, the robot can send itself signals to replicate what a real-life soldier might do in the field. Since it’s a DoD creation, projects like PETMAN raise the question: When will we be fighting wars purely with robots rather than humans? As Professor of AI and robotics at the University of Sheffield, Noel Sharkey, told the BBC, “It’s going to be used for chasing people across the desert, I would imagine. I can't think of many civilian operations.”
3 NAO (Aldebaran Robotics)
NAO is an autonomous and programmable humanoid robot developed by French robotics company, Aldebaran Robotics. Project Nao began in 2004, and in 2007 the robot replaced Sony’s robot dog Aibo as the official robot of the RoboCup Standard Platform Soccer League. NAO is only 23 inches tall and weighs 9.5 pounds. It is powered by an INTEL Atom processor.
The robot features facial and speech recognition, and moves very fluidly. It talks to you, and constantly evolves to understand its user. In over 70 countries, NAO is used in computer and science classes, to help teach programming, math, computer development, and more. NAO became the most popular educational robot because of its ease of use and fluidity.
You can teach NAO to wake you up, monitor your home, even teach your children multiplication. It can also be used in conjunction with any application, which can be downloaded to the robot to teach it new behaviors.
2 Atlas (DARPA)
Atlas is a 6-foot-tall bipedal humanoid robot, developed by Boston Dynamics for the Department of Defense’s DARPA program. The robot was designed using the PETMAN model, with four hydraulic-actuated limbs. It is created from aluminum and titanium, and because of its many functions, doesn’t have the human-like outer-shell of PETMAN.
Atlas was designed for search and rescue tasks. Its hands have acute motor skill capabilities, and it has two vision systems - stereo camera and laser rangefinder. The newest model can balance itself on one leg after being hit by projectiles, can open doors, operate powered equipment, shut off valves, and more.
In a 2013 physical test for the upcoming final round of DARPA’s Robotics Challenge, Atlas had to drive a vehicle through a course, walk through terrain littered with rubble, climb up a ladder, clear debris from a doorway, and cut through drywall using power tools - all of which Atlas managed to do.
1 ASIMO (Honda)
The ASIMO project, or “Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility,” was started by Honda in 1986. It was the first real functioning, humanoid robot introduced to the world, and has gone through many upgrades and advances since. The robot is four feet tall and weighs 115 pounds. Its eyes are cameras, and it has five pliable fingers in each hand, which can easily grasp things and also communicate in Japanese sign language.
While the first version was remote-controlled, this one is autonomous, and adjusts to its environment. It can recognize human facial expressions and speech, run upwards of 6 mph (which is fast for a robot), climb stairs, carry objects, play soccer, and can even open bottles and pour liquids.
ASIMO robots can be connected together and work collaboratively. They can move past people or obstacles, and it could even go to a charger when its battery ran low. In 2008, ASIMO famously conducted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The newest ASIMO’s can recognize different speakers and simultaneous voices, and can change its behavior based on the other party’s perceived intent.
Many of ASIMO’s newest features come from its decision-making capability, allowing it to adapt to real world situations. While it might not look the most human-like, it certainly functions as one of the most human robots, and ASIMO is helping to usher in the age of robots at a rapid pace.