S5. Self-driving cars and humanoid robots

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The development of humanoid robots has happened very slowly over many years. Suddenly however they are about to appear in many areas of our lives in quite a shocking fashion. The reason is of course the power of AI which has allowed robots to learn how to relate to the world in a way that was never previously possible.

1. Video in, action out (Tesla example). It is useful to consider Tesla's experience of trying to develop driverless cars. For many years it seemed that this was far more difficult than the optimists had hoped. Traditional programming techniques just could not deal with all of the millions of 'edge cases' - that is, the rare situations that were different to just proceeding down a well lit road with clear lane markings. Then, everything changed. Elon Musk and his team realised that they could train a neural net on the hundreds of million hours of videos that existing Tesla cars on the road recorded. Of course, that took immense computing power but the result was that thousands of lines of 'old style' code could be discarded.

Tesla with no driver

Not only did most everyone agree that the resultant version of the 'self driving' car is vastly superior to the old, it gave a major headache to most of Tesla's competitors who do not possess hundreds of millions of hours of driving video. How then can they train their own systems?

2. Humanoid robots learn quickly. What does it mean for humanoid robots? Exactly the same process is unfolding. Either humans wear suits with sensors and cameras or the robots learn by self evaluation on a range of tasks. As a result we now see announcements from the main players every few months, or even weeks. Dexterity that used to be achieved only after years of careful engineering now appears almost as a side benefit of training. So it becomes only a matter of time until humanoid robots appear in our midst.

Robots as production line workers

We know that the initial applications will be the 'low hanging fruit' in business. For example:
- warehouse workers carrying boxes and unloading and loading vehicles
- production line work bringing parts to the line and more - shop workers restocking shelves and giving excellent customer service
- car to home delivery once self driving vans are commonplace

So, business and industrial applications will provide the volumes, and that in turn will ensure fast cost reduction. Further down this page we examine some of the main suppliers. As might be expected, this is a very competitive market.

3. Example: Robots as personal trainers. It will be a while until the ordinary home has a full power humanoid robot but we can examine one area where they become directly useful to ordinary citizens. In the UK a personal trainer might cost, say, £ 20 per hour. Please don't complain if you live in a higher cost area, this figure will do for our purposes.

Runner out with her humanoid robot trainer

Imagine then that a local company hires a 'personal trainer robot' and then rents it out to clients who wish company and security when running, as well of course as a fully informed guide with knowledge of all your vital signs. That also has to be worth £ 20 per hour to many end users. Doing some basic mathematics, and assuming a modest capacity of 30 hours per week then the business can produce an income of £ 600 per week, or £ 30 000 per annum.

Suppliers of humanoid robots will almost certainly wish to rent them out to the business, complete with insurance and maintenance, rather than sell them outright. Potentially then even an annual rental cost of £ 20 000 might make everybody's calculation work. Given the competition levels, this is not a hard price to anticipate being reached very soon.

4. Example: Humanoid robots as carers. For a robot to provide assistance in a person's home, or in a care home, it needs to be able to move fluidly in the same complicated spaces that human's manage every day. That means that it is very likely to be a robot in humanoid form that provides the solution to this difficult problem.

Runner acting as a carer

Why robots rather than people? Clearly there will still be a need for people to work as carers whatever happens with humanoid robots. The best of the latter will have some advantages though.
- potentially available 24 hours a day, seven days a week
- able to monitor vital signs automatically
- with powerful 'consultant level' diagnostic skills
- strong enough to lift apatient on their own
- fully recorded actions by camera and sensors
As with all 'products' the quality of the humanoid robot will depend on budget available and cultural decisions. They should revolutionise care surprisingly soon though in more affluent countries.

5. The rapid development of humanoid robots.

This section is intended to show the wide range of companies who are competing to be major players in this space. It also demonstrates how far advanced the leading players are. It really won't be long until we see humanoids competing in the 'Robot Olympics'!

5.1 Optimus Generation 2. This humanoid robot is from USA based Tesla tesla.com humanoid robot in a video from January 2024. Notice the aspects that they highlight in their on-screen comments. Things like walking speed are vital for any industrial robot in general application. If your job is to fetch a part and bring it to the line, you need to do it as fast as a human could.

5.2 Figure. Made by USA company Figure figure.ai. This video from Feb 2024 shows the classic task of picking up one box and moving it to a different storage area. When they say that it is completing an 'autonymous task' they mean that it has only been given a general instruction to move a box from one place to another but no detailed instruction beyond that.

5.3 Digit. Made by USA based Agility Robotics agilityrobotics.com. This video from March 2024 shows a field trial of their robot in an industrial setting. View their other videos for a range of industrial placements.

5.4 Unitree H1. Chinese company Unitree unitree.com have an impressive offering. This March 2024 video showcases the speed of movement and other features. As in the 'Electric car' market, China will quickly drive down the cost of humanoids.

5.5 1X Eve and Neo. This Norwegian company 1X 1X.tech is aiming at both the industrial and home markets. The video is from late 2023 and shows wheeled robot Eve in a logistics setting.

5.6 Sanctuary AI Phoenix Sanctuary AI sanctuary.ai offer a humanoid general purpose robot called Phoenix. This video is from mid 2023 looking at the important topic of hand calibration.