It’s not always the best idea to design robots that look like us, just ask R2-D2

In August 2021, Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed his company’s plan to produce a humanoid robot called “Optimus”. The announcement, accompanied by an actor dancing in a skin-tight robot costume, was ridiculed by skeptics, but Tesla isn’t alone in the quest to create human-shaped machines.

Research labs and companies around the world are investing huge sums of money in these complex robots, for uses from warehouses to nursing homes. Their tone is twofold: the human form is recognizable and fits perfectly into our existing infrastructure. These reasons make sense, but there may be a better way forward.

Humanoids, sometimes called the “Holy Grail” of robotics, are robots with a torso, two legs, two arms and a head. Search for Google images with the word “robot” and your browser will fill with humanoid images.

Some robot creators argue that the autonomous machines we will interact with in the future must look like us, because we relate better to other humans. In my research I found that we connect emotionally with machines onto which we can project our traits, but the idea that we relate more to a human form may be missing something.

People call their robot vacuum cleaners. Would they like more if it were a humanoid who goes around sucking? Probably not. When something has a human form, we have very different expectations for its intelligence and how it will behave. Our current robots do not live up to these expectations, nor will we soon have a robot butler.

Fortunately for robot designers, things don’t have to be humanoid to relate to them – they just have to mimic signals we recognize. Artists and animators have honed the art of capturing our emotional expression and then putting it into other forms – thinks Bambi, Carsor the Pixar lamp.

Japanese cities have attracted visitors with mascots like Kumamon, a simple and cute bear character created by the Kumamoto prefecture government to boost tourism. And thousands of Star Wars fans love R2-D2, which is basically a tin can on wheels and is still more emotionally compelling than most humanoids.

Avoiding the human form when designing robots not only avoids the problem of managing expectations, but can also evade a minefield of social injustice. For example, researchers at the University of Bielefeld in Germany have found that people will evaluate a long-haired humanoid robot more suitable for stereotypical female tasks such as housework and care and less suitable for performing technical repairs, compared to a identical robot with short hair.

Previous studies have also shown that artificial agents with human faces are seen as more attractive, trustworthy, persuasive and intelligent when they are of the same ethnicity as the person who rates them. Technology that seems too human not only reflects our prejudices, but can also entrench and perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

There is also the logistical argument for humanoid robots: we live in a world built for humans, with stairs and door handles and narrow passages. To navigate these spaces, some designers say, we need robots built like us. It is certainly true that many spaces are difficult to navigate with large bodies, wheels or steps. But looking ahead, perhaps there are better choices.

Robots can be smaller than the eye can see or larger than a house. They can be encased in metals or soft materials. They can roll, climb, slide, jump, or ooze from point A to point B. According to roboticist Prof Robin Murphy of Texas A&M University, the best shape is “whatever shape gets the job.”

Ironically, challenging the notion that the “right way” to do things is the way humans do them creates opportunities to reach a wider human demographic, particularly people who often find themselves completely excluded from the process. design.

Laurel Riek, a robotics scientist at the University of California, San Diego, pointed out that instead of investing our funds in expensive, difficult-to-design, bipedal humanoid robots, we could invest in making the infrastructure more suitable for wheelchairs, walkers and strollers. . If a wheelchair can access a space, so can a simple and efficient robot on wheels.

Humans are far from uniform in our construction and capabilities, and if we design our world to reflect this, we could radically increase accessibility while at the same time developing better, cheaper robots with a wider range of skills. . Besides, why take the stairs when you can climb the walls?

While there will always be some use cases for humanoid robots, we may be able to do better for work, company, and society rather than replicating what we already have. As robots move from behind factory walls into shared spaces, robotics offers us a wonderful opportunity: it allows us to think outside of ourselves, not only in designing our robots, but also in our ideas on how to build. a better world.

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