Derived from the Greek word ‘ανδρ’ for man and the suffix ‘-oid,’ which means ‘having the form or likeness of,’ androids are robots designed to look and act like humans.
Although the idea of a truly human-looking and acting machine sounds absolutely futuristic, some of the earliest science fiction writers had exactly this concept in mind when they first started writing stories about these moving machines, including Karel Čapek, who first coined the word robot in his 1921 play. Indeed, one of man’s greatest and oldest dreams is to build the perfect android, perfect robot people.
There are obviously two directions a robot maker can take in his career: trying to create very realistic robot people / humanoid robots that move and possess all the physical attributes of a person, or robots that are made to perform specific functions, usually for medical, household or military tasks.
The latter goal is quite sensible, as who would not want a neat little machine zipping around the house, beaming wi-fi signals and cleaning up after you? But exchange the innocuous looking Roomba, for example, with a life-sized, perfectly proportioned android who can communicate and move exactly like a human but is in fact, not human, and things may begin to seem a little too unsettling. Robot people can be a little unsettling.
The overall emotional distaste felt by humans looking at humanoid robots is famously described as the ‘uncanny valley.’ Coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori, the uncanny valley is the chasm representing the exact point at which a person observing an object or creature sees something nearly human that it almost arouses empathy, but also something not quite enough human, so that the resulting effect is eerie and disquieting. This subtle imperfection supposedly causes people's feelings toward humanoid robots to change rapidly from affection to revulsion, canceling out any possibility of real human-robot interaction.
Assuming that this is true, or at least partly true, why then are robotics companies still compelled to churn out robots that are more and more life-like, more and more human? What are these robot people doing?
Osaka University’s Intelligent Robotics Laboratory in Japan is clear with their mission. They state that “the purpose of a robot is to exist as a partner and to have valuable interactions with people.”
They say that their objective is to “develop technologies for the new generation information infrastructures based on Computer Vision, Robotics and Artificial Intelligence.” Notably, they also say that one of their roles is to “verify the existence of the uncanny valley and to explore how to overcome the uncanny valley problem with androids.”
As of now, their laboratory has created extremely realistic and advanced humanoid child and adult androids, as well as geminoids, which are real-person based androids that appear and behave just like their source persons. To make their androids as human-like as possible, the laboratory uses electrical motors for their actuators, containing nine Degrees of Freedom (DoF) in the head and one at the left elbow.
The place four high-sensitivity tactile sensors made from piezo film under the skin of their androids’ arms to detect touch strength and cover the entire body with silicon skin. Their androids are shaped from the molds of real people, and the skin is painted to approximate human flesh.
Georgia Tech’s Socially Intelligent Machines Laboratory, on the other hand, built Simon to study Human-Robot Interaction, such as imitation learning and human-robot cooperation, since they believe that robots cannot be programmed to do everything before entering the real world.
Their laboratory states that robots must be able to learn new tasks as they encounter them to be able to function in inherently social and dynamic human environments. They say that their research is about “breaking down barriers like these that keep robots from functioning in everyday human environments.”
Hanson Robotics, makers of Albert Einstein Hubo and other highly realistic humanoid robots, states that their robots “fulfill the psychological need for face-to-face communication, with applications for the family, therapy, research, education, and medicine.”
Specifically, their robots have been used for an extensive range of science and engineering research, including autism therapy, artificial intelligence, machine perception, neuroscience and cognitive science and mechanical engineering. Their laboratory has even patented a kind of “spongy, structured elastic polymer called Frubber, which expertly mimics the movement of real human musculature and skin using 1/20th the power of other materials used for other robots.
Some companies, like Yobotics, a brainchild of four graduates of the M.I.T. Leg Laboratory, a subsidiary of the M.I.T.’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, concentrate only on building specific parts that mimic the human body. Yobotics, for instance, specialize in legged robots and powered leg orthotics that fill the needs of various legged robot markets. There are independent robot builders, too, like Dan Mathias, who claims to have built the first full-sized and self-contained humanoid robot in the United States, ATOM.
One company, Robots Androids and More! on eBay has created a singing android (sometimes called an "actroid") named "Robot Betty9". Robot Betty9 in addition to singing has AI and not just tell jokes, but can do stand up comedy. When she is not entertaining, she rolls around on her very own power roller skates.
In all, there seems to be a prevailing belief among robotics companies that humanoids or androids are the ideal robot design to interact with people, and that these androids are unique research tools, helping researchers understand the complexity of the human brain and body, especially in fields such as cognitive science. Or maybe they, too, like many science fiction writers and artists, simply dream of one day seeing the perfect android - the perfect robot people moving among imperfect humans.
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