Humanoid or functional robots: a useful distinction?

A lot has been said about the future of robots in our society. What the robot of tomorrow will look like, is a key talking point. But we of course mustn’t forget the software driving all of its human-like capabilities.

Nowadays, the field of robotics is really catching up to science-fiction movies. We’re witnessing the birth of the first humanoid robots, be it the cute but sterile Pepper, or the almost disturbingly human-like Geminoid built by professor Hiroshi Ishiguro as his twin brother.

We’re all familiar with human-like robots from films like I, Robot and Blade Runner, but most robots today don’t look anything like the ones from those movies. They are designed for a purpose and look the part. Think of the big orange arms powering a car assembly line, or the small discs driving around our house and autonomously cleaning it.

In the near future, the majority of robots will still be of the functional variety. By its very nature, a robot is extremely proficient in one single task, while humans are able to do many things. I think robots will continue to be designed to help people in specific functions, and I believe their looks will be tailored to the tasks they have to perform. Conclusion? Thé most important function of ANY robot is to help humans!

The advantages of looking human

Looking further ahead, I’m pretty sure humanoid robots will become just as commonplace. In the SAS Sofa Session on ‘the future of humanoid robots’ at the and& festival, I had an interesting discussion with some experts in the field about how our environment is tailored to humans. A vacuuming robot for instance can’t make its way up the stairs, and is unable to open the door to the next room. At the same time, our brains are hardwired to respond to humans. Hence, we will find it much easier to interact with human-like robots, as we don’t need a manual for interacting with them. It will just be like talking to a real human, or at least very similar.

What we should be aware of, is that humanoid robots come with certain expectations. You won’t expect your vacuum cleaner to be able to bring you a glass of water, while you might assume Pepper (the healthcare assistant robot) has the ability to do so, as the robot has arms and hands. That these are only meant for gesturing, is of course not clear to a bystander.

Furthermore, we will have a tendency to identify ourselves with human-like objects. It’d be easy to attribute a soul to a humanoid robot, and that brings with it a whole new set of questions about their role in society. In the near future, I think most useful robots will remain functional ones, while humanoid robots will start appearing in certain niche scenarios. They won’t be the most important automatons in our society, but I do believe they will drive the discussion about the topic in the years to come.

Much of the robot ‘magic’ happens behind the scenes

I believe it’s important to remember that the looks of any robot are only part of the equation. Half of what gives a robot it’s function, happens behind the scenes. Software powering smart devices is evolving at least as fast as the hardware. It’s the software that enables a robot to interpret sensory data and take action. Access to big data, neural networks and machine learning has changed the way code is being written. We’re already seeing rudimentary robots learning to control themselves through advanced machine learning techniques.

Robot without a body

The biggest impact of technology on our society in the near future might not even come from robots, functional or otherwise, but from the software itself. Artificial Intelligence, a buzzword entailing algorithms that use advanced analytics, is already making its way into our lives. These robots without a body are helping you structure your day, make sense out of your company data create albums from your pictures, and you can even talk to them in a human way (“OK, Google…”).


Curious to learn more?

-> Read this  white paper on ‘Machine learning and artificial intelligence in a brave new world’ and discover all the possibilities of developing technologies like self-driving cars to virtual assistants.

-> See what my fellow panelist had to say about humanoid robotics and their potential impact on our future society? Then have a look at the short interviews with professor Tony Belpaeme from the Ghent and Plymouth Universities, professor Bram Vanderborght from the University of Brussels and professor Hiroshi Ishiguro from Osaka University in the videos below.