Humanoid robots are coming

A rendering of Figure 01, a humanoid robot being built by a startup called Figure. Image courtesy of Figure

According to a Silicon Valley start-up working on this vision, human-shaped robots with dexterous hands will equip warehouses and retail stores, care for the elderly and do household chores within a decade. .

Why is this important: Demographic trends — such as labor shortage and growth elderly care crisis – make fully functional, AI-driven humanoid robots appealing.

  • Companies like Amazon are would have worried about running out of warehouse workers, whose jobs are physically and mentally demanding with high attrition.

Driving the news: A hard-hitting startup called FigureWho just emerged in stealth mode, builds a prototype humanoid robot that the company says will eventually be able to walk, climb stairs, open doors, use tools, and lift boxes — maybe even cook dinner.

  • The company is the brainchild of Brett Adcock, a technology entrepreneur who previously founded Archer Aviation (a “flying taxi“maker who went public) and Vettery (an online recruitment marketplace he and a partner sold for $100 million).
  • He assembled an all-star team of 40, including top roboticists from Boston Dynamics and Tesla.
  • They moved into a 30,000 square foot facility in Sunnyvale, Calif., where they plan to set up a mock warehouse to test their prototype.
  • “We just finished in December with our full-scale humanoid,” Adcock told Axios. “We will be walking this in the next 30 days.”

Where is it : The prototype – called Figure 01 – is about 5’6″ tall and weighs 130 pounds.

  • It will be fully electric, run for five hours on one charge, and is intended for warehouse use.
  • “We expect to be able to enter commercial operation within a few years,” Adcock told Axios. “We should be able to do most jobs – physical jobs that humans don’t want to do.”

Yes, but: Humanoid robots are incredibly difficult to build and engineer to work reliably.

  • There are a host of design challenges, from simple balance to replicating human motion.
  • “We have to be able to push it and not drop it,” Adcock says of Figure 01. (Boston Dynamics has a lot of blooper robot videos on Youtube.)
  • From there, programming a robot to move boxes around a warehouse is much easier than, say, designing it to cook a meal.

What they say : “We face high risk and extremely low chance of success,” Adcock said. writing in a mission statement.

  • But he sounded optimistic in an interview: “This stuff just wasn’t possible 10 years ago – I think it’s possible now.”
  • Ten years ago “you just didn’t have the energy or the power density to make it work”.

Reality check: Engineering robots are expensive. Adcock says he’s self-funded Figure: “I invested $10 million last year.”

Enlarge: Goldman Sachs released initial research report on the humanoid robot industry in November, estimating that “a market of $6 billion (or more) of human-sized and human-shaped robots is achievable within the next 10 to 15 years.”

  • This market “would be able to fill 4% of the projected labor shortage in US manufacturing by 2030 and 2% of global demand for elderly care by 2035”.

The big picture: The modern quest to build a robot that looks and feels like a human began in earnest over a decade ago, with Boston Dynamics’ Atlas – which tech writer John Markoff once compared with to C-3PO from “Star Wars” — in the lead.

  • Today, Atlas and that of Xiaomi Cyber ​​One lean more towards research than towards commercial applications.
  • Tesla’s humanoid robot Optimus is likely to be Figure’s main competitor – Elon Musk has described similar ambitions to Adcock for the “Tesla Bot”. (See in action here.)
  • Another competitor: Agility Robotics, whose humanoid robot, Digit, is also intended for warehouse work. (Watch him play here.)

But there is robot-fever everywhere. At SXSW in Austin, Disney is coming unveiled an inline-skating and somersaulting bunny robot that’s supposed to look like Judy Hopps from “Zootopia.”

The bottom line: It will take decades for humanoid robots to be able to replicate the sophisticated things our bodies can do, but visionaries are working hard to make it happen.

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