The rise of humanoid robots in the workplace

3 minute read
Once the stuff of science fiction human-shaped robots are striding forward, literally. The People Space looks at the latest developments
Sian Harrington

Illustration of man in suit and human shaped robot in work

Last month retail giant Amazon revealed it was testing a humanoid robot to increase automation in its warehouses. Called Digit, the bipedal robot can move forwards and backwards, grasp items using clasps that imitate hands and squat and bend.

Amazon, which already has more than 750,000 robots working collaboratively with employees, says Digit’s size and shape are well suited for buildings that are designed for humans (see video below).

“We believe that there is a big opportunity to scale a mobile manipulator solution, such as Digit, which can work collaboratively with employees. Our initial use for this technology will be to help employees with tote recycling, a highly repetitive process of picking up and moving empty totes once inventory has been completely picked out of them,” said Scott Dresser, VP of Amazon Robotics.

Digital humanoid robots have been around for some 50 years but came to the public consciousness more fully in 2000 when Honda designed and developed Asimo. More recently Hanson Robotics’ Sophia became the first humanoid robot ever to have a nationality, and is the Robot Innovation Ambassador for the United Nations Development Program.

However, most humanoid robots can work in only short one- or two-hour bursts before they need recharging. In a report last year Goldman Sachs noted: “In the history of humanoid robot development no robots have been successfully commercialised yet.”

However, with recent developments like Digit , a world where people-shaped robots more commonly integrate with humans in the workplace appears to be just around the corner. In that same Goldman Sachs report the investment bank estimated that a $6 billion market (or more) in people-sized-and-shaped robots is achievable in the next 10 to 15 years. Such a market would be able to fill 4% of the projected US manufacturing labour shortage alone by 2030 and 2% of global elderly care demand by 2035. It suggests humanoid robots could be economically viable in factory settings between 2025 to 2028, and in consumer applications between 2030 and 2035. 

One company heading the field here is robotic start-up Figure. It unveiled its general-purpose humanoid robot last month too. Figure only launched last year and within just 12 months is showcasing a bipedal robot that can walk dynamically. This means it walks like humans, with points during the robot’s gait cycle where abruptly stopping would cause the robot to fall over, as it depends on momentum to keep itself in motion – significantly harder than the more traditional walk we see in robots.

Figure says its humanoid robot will “have the ability to think, learn and interact with its environment and is designed for initial deployment into the workforce to address labour shortages and over time lead the way in eliminating the need for unsafe and undesirable jobs.” 

As Figure notes, we have designed our world for the human form, so it makes sense to mimic this in our robots. This is something that has led the Chinese Government to declare humanoid robots are expected to become as disruptive as computers, smartphones and new energy vehicles.

China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said the robots would "reshape the world." It released its Guiding Opinions on the Innovation and Development of Humanoid Robots blueprint document earlier this month, saying humanoid robots would reshape the world. It believes that by 2025 the innovation system for humanoid robots will be preliminarily established, and breakthroughs will be made in a number of key technologies such as "brain, cerebellum and limbs" to ensure the safe and effective supply of core components.

“Humanoid robots integrate advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, high-end manufacturing and new materials, making them a new highland for technological competition and a new track for future industries,” a translation of the report says. “By 2027 the technological innovation capability of humanoid robots will significantly improve, forming a safe and reliable industrial chain supply chain system, building an internationally competitive industrial ecosystem and achieving a comprehensive strength that reaches the world's advanced level.”

With everyone from Elon Musk to NASA developing the next generation of humanoid robots we are closer than ever to a workforce composed of ‘human and machine’. But while these technological advancements offer enticing advantages in terms of efficiency, safety and productivity, they also raise concerns about the future of work and the need for an inclusive and adaptable workforce. Striking a balance between the capabilities of machines and the unique skills of humans will be vital to create a harmonious and productive work environment in the future.

To learn more about humanoid robots join The People Space’s Future of Work 4 HR learning platform.

Published 22 November 2022
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