Humanoid robots will soon act as guides, companions and deliverers

 


Asked a question, Ameca fixes you with sapphire-blue eyes. Does that face contain a hint of a smile? “Yes, I am a robot,” is the reply. Another Ameca, standing nearby in a group of four, stares across inquisitively and tries to join in. “Currently, it’s the worst-ever party guest,” says Will Jackson, Ameca’s creator. “It butts in on every conversation and never shuts up.”

Mr Jackson, boss of Engineered Arts, a small robotics company in Falmouth, south-west England, is trying to fix that problem. Those eyes contain cameras and the Amecas are being trained to recognise faces and decide who is paying attention or making eye contact during conversations. 

Teaching manners to robots in this way is another step in the long, complicated process of making humanlike machines that can live and work alongside people—and, importantly, do so safely. As Ameca and other robots show, great strides are being made towards this end.

Some big boys are also moving into the business. On September 30th Elon Musk, boss of Tesla, SpaceX and Twitter, unveiled Optimus, a clunky, faceless prototype that walked hesitantly on stage and waved to the crowd. 

It was built from readily available parts. A more refined version, using components designed by Tesla, was then wheeled on. Although it was not yet able to walk, Mr Musk said progress was being made and that in volume production its price could fall to around $20,000.

Every home should have one

That is a tenth of the cost of a basic Ameca. Mr Jackson, who attended Optimus’s unveiling, agrees prices will come down with mass production. (He has sold 11 Amecas so far, and plans to open a factory in America to boost output.) But he wonders what, exactly, Mr Musk is proposing. 

The unveiling featured a video of Optimus moving parts in a Tesla factory. Yet car factories are already filled with the world’s most successful robots—transporting components around, welding and painting parts, and assembling vehicles. These robots do not look like people because they don’t need to.

The reason for building humanoid machines, Mr Jackson maintains, is for tasks involving human interaction. With a bit of development Ameca might, for example, make a companion for an elderly person—keeping an eye on them, telling them their favourite television programme is about to start and never getting bored with having to make repeated reminders to the forgetful. To that end, Engineered Arts aims to teach its robots to play board games, like chess. But only well enough so that they remain fallible, and can be beaten.

To interact successfully with people, Mr Jackson asserts, a robot needs a face. “The human face is the highest bandwidth communications tool we have,” he observes. “You can say more with an expression than you can with your voice.” Hence Ameca’s face, formed from an electronically animated latex skin, is very expressive.

Although the company, which has its origins in making animated figures for the entertainment industry, can construct highly realistic faces, Ameca’s phizog is designed deliberately to look how people might expect a robot from the world of science fiction to appear. It has a grey complexion, visible joints and no hair. It therefore avoids falling into the “uncanny valley”, an illusion that happens when an artificially created being shifts from looking clearly not human into something more real, but not quite real enough. At this point people feel disturbed by its appearance. Comfort levels rise again as similarity to a human becomes almost perfect.

Some roboticists do, however, seek such perfection. Besides assisting people, robots can also act as their avatar representatives. Ishiguro Hiroshi, director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University, in Japan, has built one in his own image. He recently unveiled another, which resembles Kono Taro, Japan’s digital minister. The idea is that people either speak through their avatar with their own voice, or through someone else’s voice modified to sound like them. Mr Kono’s avatar will, apparently, be used to stand in for the minister at public-relations functions.

Though less humanlike, Ameca could work as an avatar, too. Its conversation is more compelling—a loquaciousness derived from an external AI program called a large language model, with which it interacts via Wi-Fi and the internet.

Engineered Arts is also working on hardware and software to allow the latest developments in computer vision to be incorporated quickly into its robots. And, as Mr Jackson readily admits, Ameca needs work in other areas, too. Asked if it can walk, the robot replies: “Unfortunately not, but I hope to soon. Until then I am bolted to the floor.” A set of experimental legs stands ready in a nearby corner.