Why Robots Are Getting More Human

Friendlier and more versatile

Key Takeaways

  • A growing number of robots are taking on human-like appearance and abilities. 
  • Elon Musk recently unveiled the automaker's first humanoid robot. 
  • Robots need to look human to seem friendly, some experts say.
A robot and a person sharing a living space.

Donald Iain Smith / Getty Images

The robots are coming, and they might look human. 

Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently unveiled the automaker's first humanoid robot. The electric vehicle company will develop a humanoid robot prototype dubbed the "Tesla Bot." It’s one of a growing number of robots under development that attempt to match the look and abilities of people. 

"Human-like robots will be useful because they can more easily work alongside or in place of the humans who must perform the many 'dull, dirty, and dangerous' tasks that we depend on humans to solve, but are unpleasant for humans to perform," Brendan Englot, a professor mechanical engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

"The new, beneficial capabilities could range from a 24-hour in-home caretaker who is always on duty, to a search-and-rescue robot that can search for people in dangerous places, without putting additional human lives at risk," Englot added. 

There Are Many Copies

Tesla’s robot, which is codenamed "Optimus," will stand 5-foot-8, weigh 125 pounds, and have human-like hands and feet. The bot also will have a visual sensor to help it view objects and obstacles. 

"[You can] talk to it and say, 'Please pick up that bolt and attach it to a car with that wrench,' and it should be able to do that," Musk said at the briefing. "'Please go to the store and get me the following groceries.' That kind of thing. I think we can do that."

Robots need to look human to seem friendly, Karen Panetta, a fellow at the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and robotics expert, told Lifewire in an email interview.

A paper in the International Journal of Social Robotics, "Blurring Human–Machine Distinctions: Anthropomorphic Appearance in Social Robots as a Threat to Human Distinctiveness," argues that humans fear anthropomorphic robots due to their perceived incursion on human uniqueness. So while there is a natural affinity for robots that resemble and emote like us, we are also worried they will make us feel less human.

In the past, the race to develop humanoid robots was challenged by cost and technological limits, Panetta said.

"Now, threadlike materials and electronic skins can embed many sensors and actuators that are energy efficient and can communicate massive amounts of information wirelessly," Panetta added. "This expands the robot’s capabilities to produce realistic gestures and more accurate responses that make sense and are relevant to the human the robot is interacting/assisting or serving."

A white robot with human-like features.

Akex Knight / Unspalsh

Medical robots can help monitor patient health, take vitals, and give directions to patients to help with compliance with medications or medical routines, as well as monitor patient safety, and call for help if they detect the patient has fallen, Panetta said. 

"As robots evolve, they will be able to do dedicated manual tasks, such as opening bottles, retrieving items, helping lift patients, and preparing meals," she added.

And They Have a Plan

But not all industry experts think that human robots are the future. 

The investment in making a human-shaped robot comes with high costs and a diminishing return on investment, Tra Vu, the chief operating officer of robotics company OhmniLabs, told Lifewire in an email interview.

"The higher degree of freedom required to make functional humanoids like Pepper and Asimo (both retired at this point) means they are also harder to program, more difficult to implement, and more susceptible to failures," Vu said.

On the other hand, robots with human-like abilities are on the rise, according to Vu. For example, there’s the robot, Atlas and Spot, a four-legged robot that is stable and easier to control. 

A small robot with human-like features in an office setting.

Peter Cade / Getty Images

"These robots can mimic a lot of human-like abilities like walk, climb, run, and even dance," Vu said. 

Robots should replace dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks, Vu argued.

"Similar to the introduction of computers, progress in robotics development also enables and facilitates new jobs for which humans are better suited," she said. “Robots will essentially allow us to concentrate and perform more skilled and creative tasks."

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