AI Humanoid Robots: From Fiction to Function

AI Humanoid Robots
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Creating a robot that balances human-like traits with practical functionality has been a longstanding aspiration in engineering, fueled by the influence of beloved science fiction narratives. 

Despite the surge of interest in artificial intelligence (AI) technology, which has prompted increased investment in the pursuit of humanoid robots, many present-day models remain rudimentary and unsuitable for everyday use. They often excel in controlled demonstrations but fall short in real-world applications.

Nevertheless, a select few startup companies are dedicated to refining and advancing this ambitious endeavor. These innovative firms leverage cutting-edge AI technologies and robotics engineering to push the boundaries of what these robots can achieve, bringing their advanced capabilities closer to everyday applications in various industries. 

This competitive race to develop AI humanoid robots is marked by intense innovation and groundbreaking advancements as companies strive to redefine our interaction with machines in daily life.

What is a Humanoid Robot?

Humanoids are sophisticated robotic machines designed to replicate human actions, reasoning, and functionalities. These robots, built to resemble the human form, epitomize the fusion of AI, machine learning, biomechanics, and sensor connectivity with principles from learning, behavioral science, and cognitive development. 

This human-like shape allows humanoids to navigate and interact with human-centric environments, such as tools, buildings, and homes, making them highly compatible with our world.

Generative AI and large language models (LLMs) equip humanoid robots with the ability to perceive, interpret, and adapt to unstructured situations, such as changes in layout, lighting conditions, or object placements. 

This capability aids their seamless integration into our daily lives and helps them gain quicker social acceptance than robots with non-human forms. By resembling human appearance and behavior, these robots are more successful at interacting and cooperating with people, thus increasing their suitability for many applications.

The expansion of interest in humanoid robots, combined with advancements in robotics, including locomotion and AI, has spurred their development over the last decade. These human-like-shaped robots use the same equipment, allowing them to function on similar grounds to humans, making them very compatible for various applications, such as digital twins’ physical implementation.

Presently, there are varying sizes and shapes of humanoid robots that are being used extensively for space research/exploration of space, personal assistance/healthcare, teaching/entertainment, search/rescue missions, maintenance/manufacturing, public relations, etc.

Humanoid Robots Market Overview

Technological advancements and increasing needs in sectors such as personal assistance, education, caregiving, entertainment, and defense have led to the rapid growth of the global humanoid robot market. Industry experts, including Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk, anticipate that by the 2040s, there could be as many as one billion human-like robots on Earth.

Reportedly, improvements in mobility, cognitive abilities, and cost efficiency will drive the total addressable market (TAM) for humanoid robots to $4.85 trillion by 2035. Additionally, advancements in AI chips, enhanced sensors, and battery technologies, which are crucial for humanoid robots, are propelling the robotics and AI markets forward.

The major drivers of this growth include increased visibility and flexibility in manufacturing operations, expanded use in logistics, and significant demand from the healthcare sector. This market expansion underscores a robust interest in integrating humanoid robots into diverse applications.

Significant investments and developments characterize the AI humanoid robot market. Notable examples include Agility Robotics’ Digit, designed for warehouse tasks, and robotics startup Figure‘s partnership with BMW for manufacturing settings.

Goldman Sachs Research projects that the global humanoid robot market could reach at least $6 billion within the next 10-15 years. These robots could address 4% of the US manufacturing labor shortage by 2030 and meet 2% of the global demand for elderly care by 2035. 

If challenges related to product design, usability, technology, affordability, and public acceptance are fully addressed, the market could expand dramatically, potentially reaching up to $154 billion by 2035 in an ideal scenario.

These trends suggest a robust growth trajectory for the humanoid robots market, with technological advancements and increased investment playing critical roles in its expansion. 

Key Players and Innovations in the Humanoid Robot Market

As the market for humanoid robots progresses, key players like Tesla, Boston Dynamics, and Toyota, along with startups such as Figure and Agility Robotics, are at the forefront with groundbreaking solutions designed for both industrial and domestic applications.

These companies have recently introduced humanoid robots that they believe either already fulfill existing market needs or wil do so soon.

Below is a summary of these robots, their capabilities, and, in some instances, their current roles working alongside humans.

1. Digit (Agility Robotics)

Digit is a 5’9” tall humanoid robot weighing 140 pounds that walks at a speed of 3.3 mph and can carry loads of up to 35 lbs. First unveiled in 2019, Digit has undergone significant changes from its prior version, which had a torso and arms mounted above the company’s earlier robotic legs called Cassie. The next generation (2023) was introduced, with the improved hands and head becoming the fourth iteration.

Digit initially entered the workforce by partnering with Ford, where it underwent trials for last-mile deliveries back in 2019. Subsequently, Amazon commenced experimentation with these robots within its warehouse operations starting in 2023. 

These robots predominantly engage in the movement of empty totes. Concurrently, GXO Logistics embraced the utilization of Digit to process orders for Spanx at one of its facilities located in Atlanta.

In September 2023, Agility Robotics announced the construction of a manufacturing plant aimed at producing over 10,000 Digit robots annually, starting with this year. The company envisions Digit taking on “dull, dirty, and dangerous” tasks, which will free up human workers to focus on more creative and complex work. 

Video source: YouTube/Agility Robotics

2. Apollo (Apptronik)

This general purpose humanoid robot named Apollo which is developed by Apptronik is 5’8” tall, weighs 160 lbs and has a carrying capacity of 55 lbs. It can operate for four hours. Apollo primarily comes in white and light gray color with a friendly design that promotes positive human-robot interaction.

Apptronik having originated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2016 has produced various types of robotic systems that include exoskeletons and robotic arms. Their flagship human-like robot, Apollo, was introduced in August 2023. Since then, it has been consistently improved on to make it more functional as articulated earlier.

It was in March 2024 when Mercedes-Benz declared its plans to deploy Apollo robots within their manufacturing plants. Moreover, Apptronik sees Apollo being useful in diverse industries such as construction, oil and gas production, electronics manufacturing, retailing business as well as home delivery services and elderly care sector which provides essential services for senior citizens. Notably too, NASA may employ the use of Apollo during future Mars missions.

Considering the future Mercedes-Benz along with Apptronik are currently investigating other uses for Apollo at one of their factories in Hungary. Besides this development announced last July, Apptronik also initiated a partnership with NASA towards modifying its humanoid robots including Apollo for purposes of facilitating astronauts while working on board certain spacecrafts like ISS (International Space Station) or others where they live inside capsules orbiting around our planet.

Video source: YouTube/Apptronik

3. Electric Atlas (Boston Dynamics)

Boston Dynamics, a company that comes from MIT has launched a new version of its famous humanoid robot known as Atlas. With an impressive agility and parkour powers, the former hydraulic prototype now comes as an all-electric commercial-ready model first showed off in April of 2024.

The business went viral with videos of their robotic creations including robot dog Spot and Atlas. The new electric version of Atlas is designed differently from the previous one because it aims at real-life applications right away beginning with a pilot project at a Hyundai manufacturing plant. In order to enhance factory operations, Hyundai which owns Boston Dynamics envisages potential for Atlas. 

Boston Dynamics plans to do “proof of technology” testing on Atlas at the Hyundai plant starting in 2025. Additionally, over the next few years the company will work with selected customers to explore further uses for Atlas.

Not only do they want to prove its capabilities under controlled environments but also demonstrate its performance even in real-life situations thus displaying confidence about this most advanced humanoid by now.

Video source: YouTube/Boston Dynamics

4. Figure 01 (Figure AI)

In March 2023, Figure AI emerged stealthily from obscurity with its humanoid robot called Figure 01, and proudly claimed it to be “the world’s first commercially viable general-purpose humanoid robot.” At five foot six inches and weighing in at 132 pounds this robot can walk a distance of up to 2.6 mphr lift loads of as much as 44 pounds, and remain fully operational for five hours on one charge. By March 2024; however, Figure AI had demonstrated this by explaining the decisions made during the moves while interacting in useful ways with humans.

Backed by venture capital firms such as OpenAI, Figure 01 has quickly risen to prominence within the field of humanoid robotics. Designed originally for use across multiple industry verticals such as manufacturing, warehousing/logistics, retailing, etc., it saw its first deployment at a BMW manufacturing facility in January 2024, emphasizing its relevance in real-world applications.

The company also announced in February 2024 that it had raised $675 million from prominent investors, including OpenAI, Microsoft, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. This will go a long way towards fast-tracking the commercialization of Figure 01 so that more can be achieved through general-purpose humanoid robots.

Figure AI’s aim is clear: even though single-use cases have dominated commercialized robotics for decades now, there remains an untapped potential for universal-purpose robots. Through the implementation of its advanced humanoids, it seeks to improve productivity levels across various industries while reducing costs and providing secure working environments.

Video source: YouTube/Figure

5. Optimus Gen 2 (Tesla)

Standing at 5’8”, Tesla’s humanoid Optimus weighs 138 pounds. It can walk at a pace of 1.3 mph and load up to 45 pounds. Initially announced by CEO Elon Musk during Tesla’s AI Day in 2021, the latest version of Optimus was unveiled in December 2023, and it included improved hands and a faster walking speed.

Musk sees Optimus as perfect for taking on boring, repetitive, and physically risky tasks within Tesla factories. The goal is for the robot to handle these chores, thereby boosting efficiency and safety in the workplace.

However, recent job postings indicate that field tests for Optimus might be imminent. Musk told investors in January this year that there is a “good chance” that Tesla will begin sending Optimus bots out to customers by 2025, although he tends to be optimistic with his timelines.

Tesla boldly claims to be one of the possibly most significant robot manufacturers globally, while Optimus is said to be the most advanced humanoid robot worldwide.

Video source: YouTube/Tesla

These are just a few examples of AI humanoid robots driving innovation in this dynamic market. Other notable mentions include NVidia’s Gr00t, which further exemplifies humanoid robotics’s rapid advancements and diverse applications in today’s technology landscape. 

NVidia’s Gr00t, known for its advanced AI capabilities and flexibility, has been making waves alongside other key players. Additionally, advancements by companies like Sanctuary AI and Halodi Robotics highlight the industry’s continuous evolution. They showcase a variety of robots tailored for different tasks and environments, further pushing the boundaries of what humanoid robots can achieve.

Future Trends and Predictions in Humanoid Robotics

The future of humanoid robotics seems to be on the verge of significant advances, mostly through the incorporation of AI-supported self-sufficiency. The trend toward investment in autonomous robots that can learn, act, and assist humans independently is growing. Even though it is currently a niche industry, autonomy in robotics is expected to open up more, thereby driving growth in the global robotics market by enabling more valuable use cases.

Technological advancements in cameras,  computer vision, and deep learning are leading to the emergence of robots that can perceive, understand, and learn from their environment. These generative AI-enhanced autonomous robots will create seamless human-robot interactions, making communication as simple as chatting with your colleague or friend. This easy way of interaction reduces friction, thus making it easier for the practical deployment of humanoid robots across different fields.

Nevertheless, despite this achievement, experts still debate whether Artificial Intelligence could be truly responsive like human beings. Present AI systems, especially big language models, possess several limitations. They often have difficulty coping with new situations that they have not been trained on, thus lacking what humans consider ‘understanding’ about the world​.

The future of humanoid robots lies at the intersection between AI and robotics which will determine their future applications and capabilities. With time, these technologies will continue evolving, resulting in a strong growth outlook for the robotics industry, where such machines play an important role in improving efficiency and spurring innovation within various industries. 

Based on these trends, it stands to reason that as AI matures alongside robotic technology, we will see more intricate, high-level humanoid robots capable of significantly influencing our daily lives and numerous industrial contexts.

AI Humanoid Robots: Key Takeaways

AI humanoid robots blend human-like attributes with practical usability. Although significant investments have been poured into AI, most current models remain rudimentary, excelling only in controlled conditions. However, emerging startups are leveraging advanced AI and robotics engineering to bring these robots closer to practical deployment across various sectors.

The future of humanoid robots lies at the intersection of AI and robotics. As AI technology matures, it will lead to more intricate humanoids capable of significantly impacting daily life and various industries. Improvements in cameras and deep learning algorithms are making these machines more autonomous, facilitating smooth human-robot interactions.

Experts caution that current AI systems, including LLMs, still struggle with novel situations. Despite these challenges, continuous advancements in AI and robotics suggest a promising future for the industry. Humanoid robots are set to drive efficiency and innovation, potentially becoming integral to our everyday and industrial lives​.

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Neil Sahota
Neil Sahota (萨冠军) is an IBM Master Inventor, United Nations (UN) Artificial Intelligence (AI) Advisor, author of the best-seller Own the AI Revolution and sought-after speaker. With 20+ years of business experience, Neil works to inspire clients and business partners to foster innovation and develop next generation products/solutions powered by AI.