Flexibility for Robots?

One of the big questions about the future of industrial robots is this: should they be humanoid?

Most industrial robots now are not. They may remind us of parts of a human body, or of animal bodies, but they are not C-3PO or even Pepper.

They are machines specifically made to do a specific task. That’s not a good description of a human, let alone a humanoid.

Humanoid robots have flexibility

A discussion about Agility Robots’s humanoid robot, Digit, brings up just this point. The company produced a video showing Digit moving boxes in a warehouse. Warehousing is a fertile field for automation.

The clear question, though, is why Digit (or, more broadly, any bipedal robot) is the right robot to be doing this kind of job. There are other robots out there already doing tasks like these in warehouses, and they generally have wheeled bases and manipulation systems specifically designed to move totes and do nothing else. If you were to use one of those robots instead of Digit, my guess is that you’d pay less for it, it would be somewhat safer, and it would likely do the job more efficiently. Fundamentally, Digit can’t out box-move a box-moving robot. But the critical thing to consider here is that as soon as you run out of boxes to move, Digit can do all kinds of other things thanks to its versatile humanoid design, while your box-moving robot can only sit in the corner and be sad until more boxes show up.

Nice touch, thinking about the box-moving robot feeling sad. But in a warehouse, there is no lack of boxes. There are few moments when there aren’t any boxes to move. That’s kind of the point of a warehouse.

And that’s kind of the point of a robot. You want to put together three paper cups? A human can do that. You want to put together 200 paper cups per minute? You need a machine.

Dull, dirty, and dangerous

There is widespread agreement that automation is good for taking on tasks which would, for human beings, be dull, dirty, or dangerous. Extremely limited repetitive tasks are just the thing.

Tasks requiring two legs, flexibility, and the ability to feel sad when you run out of work? Those are tasks for human beings.

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