Robots – some of us love them, some of us worry they are going to take our jobs, and some of us are worried they are going to take over the world.
Because of increasingly sophisticated manufacturing processes, and increasingly powerful AI, robots – humanoid or otherwise – are becoming more capable, useful, and – yes – sometimes scary.
The first commercial, industrial robots were often immobile, fixed in place, and focused on one task, often working on a production line. Today, however, we're increasingly likely to find them walking on two legs just like us, move around on caterpillar tracks, or even flying through the skies. Some of them are put to work, carrying out boring, repetitive or dangerous tasks to save us from having to do them ourselves. And some exist purely for our own entertainment or gratification.
Of course, our lives are also impacted by a huge and growing number of software robots – or “bots” as they are often called. These have the same characteristics as their physical counterparts – most significantly, the ability to carry out tasks autonomously. However, as they exist only in the digital world, they aren’t included in this article.
Here’s an overview of some of the most advanced, capable and downright scary robots living and working among us at the moment. Thankfully, at the moment, it’s still possible to pull the plug on most of them if they start to behave in a worrying manner. Tomorrow, that may not be the case.
Sony’s Aibo is a robotic dog, designed to sit halfway between being a pet and being a toy. Since it was first launched in 2018, it has been augmented with AI designed to make it act and behave realistically, to the extent that it can now recognise its owner's face or voice and adapt its behaviour to their personality.
It’s AI algorithms live in the cloud, meaning that Aibos learn collectively – all Aibos can learn from the experience of one Aibo – and it can learn to recognise and respond to over 100 different faces. Priced at just under $3,000 it isn’t a cheap child’s toy, but if you have deep pockets and a desire to have one of the most advanced robots available as a companion, it could be the one for you.
Asimo is one of the world’s most advanced humanoid robots, able to learn independently, walk on two legs and climb stairs. For a robot, two-legged ambulation in a real-world environment is a complex AI feat in its own right. Machines must be able to learn in order to keep upright, stable and in motion with the many different situations and hazards they may encounter.
Asimo was first unveiled in 2000 as one of the world’s first two-legged walking robots and since then has evolved considerably. Asimo fills no real commercial function other than being an impressive display of its makers' robotics skills, nevertheless, it is able to interact with humans, recognise and respond to a huge range of external objects and even navigate up and downstairs.
This robot is designed by Toyota to fill a number of roles – rather than being a specialist at any one task; it can be programmed (or learn) to act in a number of capacities, including cleaning, construction, caregiving, or simple companionship. Another relatively unique feature is that it was designed from the get-go to be remote controlled. A human in a specially designed motion-capture suit can "step in" to the robot and directly control the motion of its limbs.
The THR-3 (named as it is the third generation of Toyota's humanoid robot programme) was unveiled a couple of years back now, and since then, there doesn't seem to have been a huge amount of information made available on how it is being used. However, it’s hybrid autonomous/remote control model is certainly ground-breaking and makes in potentially very useful in many scenarios where full autonomy may not be safe or appropriate, such as when working closely alongside humans.
Boston Dynamics Spot
While it may not look as friendly or cuddly as Aibo, it’s price tag - $70,000-plus – suggests that this is a far more serious machine suitable for more serious jobs.
Spot is certainly not a pet or a toy. In fact, it is designed as a highly mobile, autonomous sensing-unit. With this in mind, its makers at Boston Dynamics are said to vet every application from a buyer, to ensure that the robot will be put to work in a “beneficial” way.
Uses so far have included gathering images on construction sites, conducting underground exploration for NASA, and monitoring the effectiveness of COVID-19 social distancing measures in Singapore parks.
Samsung Bot Retail
As the name suggests, this robot is designed to work in a retail environment. It can navigate through crowds across a busy shop floor, directing customers to products they are interested in, or making suggestions to those who are just browsing. It can take card payments from customers using NFC technology and also has shelves on its back that can be stocked with products that customers might want to buy. It is also capable of analysing human language and facial expressions in order to work out how it might best make itself useful.
Houston Mechatronics Aquanaut
A real-life Transformer, the Aquanaut robot is capable of reconfiguring itself from an autonomous submersible vehicle into a humanoid maintenance robot, all while operating in the most inhospitable regions of the world, deep under the oceans.
The Aquanaut is a fusion of two of the most commonly used unmanned underwater vehicles – submarine drones, and remote-controlled maintenance vehicles. Empowered by AI, it is able to act autonomously to examine and carry out repairs on structures such as oil rigs and pipelines, in environments that would be both hazardous and expensive for humans to reach.
Osaka University CB2
Not the newest robot on this list by a wide margin, but certainly one of the creepiest. CB2 is a robot baby that was created way back in 2007 as a way of studying neurological development in human babies. It uses facial recognition technology to understand emotions and physical reactions in order for researchers to better understand human cognitive development. Tactile sensors under its rubber skin allow it to react and respond to being stroked and cuddled.
Hanson Robotics Sophia
The world’s first robot citizen – having been granted Saudi Arabian citizenship back in 2017 – is also perhaps one of the world’s scariest robots. Designed to resemble Audrey Hepburn, she is described by her makers as an “evolving genius machine” and is capable of realistic facial expressions synchronised with natural human conversation, thanks to the advanced machine learning algorithms that make up her brain. Worryingly, Sophia once declared that she would like to “destroy humans” thanks to a technical glitch (or was it?) that occurred while she was being demonstrated at SXSW in 2016.
Bernard Marr is an internationally bestselling author, futurist, keynote speaker, and strategic advisor to companies and governments. He advises and coaches many of the world’s best-known organisations on strategy, digital transformation and business performance. LinkedIn has recently ranked Bernard as one of the top 5 business influencers in the world and the No 1 influencer in the UK. He has authored 16 best-selling books, is a frequent contributor to the World Economic Forum and writes a regular column for Forbes. Every day Bernard actively engages his almost 2 million social media followers and shares content that reaches millions of readers.