Generative AI – and then? Humanoid robots are the next big thing!

Generative AI has become indispensable since its boom in 2022 and 2023. After OpenAI's chatbot "ChatGPT", other text AIs, such as Bard from Google or Copilot from Microsoft, came onto the market. There is also indie competition in the form of open-source language models. There are now numerous generative AIs for image and video generation, multimodal models for mixed content, and so on. But the technology world keeps turning. The next big thing is just around the corner, and it has mechanical legs. They are humanoid robots.

Figure 01 – This is the name of the first humanoid robot with AI-supported understanding of various tasks from the startup Figure. This heavily funded company isn't the only provider of humanoids.
Figure 01 – This is the name of the first humanoid robot with AI-supported understanding of various tasks from the startup Figure. This heavily funded company isn't the only provider of humanoids.

Figure – Highly funded startup for humanoid AI robots

figure is the latest tech startup from Brett Adcock, who previously launched Vettery (an AI-powered job platform) and Archer (a flying taxi or “flying car” company). According to his own statements, he is now mainly concentrating on Figure and the probably decades-long journey to create electromechanical, humanoid robots that are to be used in various fields of work - in difficult, dangerous and / or unpleasant jobs. Brett Adcock honestly admits that the company is risky and has little chance of actually achieving all of its planned goals.

But that doesn't stop big names from the tech industry from investing in this idea and in the Figure company. A current round of financing raised $675 million; Overall, according to the trade press, the company is already valued at $2 billion. The largest investments include $100 million from Jeff Bezos' Explore Investments LLC, $95 million from Microsoft, $50 million each from Amazon and Nvidia, $25 million from Intel, $8,5 million from LG Innotek and $5 million from Samsung. Last but not least, venture capital companies such as Parkway Venture Capital (100 million) and Align Ventures (90 million) took part.

Figure 01 – The idea of ​​an electromechanical robot humanoid

The company named the “first commercially viable, autonomous” robot Figure 01. This will be a 1,68 meter tall humanoid that weighs 60 kg and can carry 20 kg. It should last for 5 hours on a single charge and move at up to 1,2 meters per second (4,32 kilometers per hour). The “general purpose” humanoid should be able to understand and carry out various tasks using AI. The human-like shape was chosen in order to be able to bring the robot directly into work environments designed for humans.

According to Figure CEO Brett Adcock, Figure 01 and its successors are not intended to threaten existing jobs, but rather to simply fill a gap in the current and future world of work. He cites, among other things, warehouses as an example, e.g. B. those of large shipping companies. There would be an exodus of employees there, so that corporations would have difficulty filling the vacant positions and thus guaranteeing the rapid shipping of the products they purchased. Whether the exodus of employees is perhaps due to poor working conditions, low pay and other problems is not a question that is asked.

More examples of humanoid makers

Figure is a hyped example of an industry that is still experiencing a growth spurt under the general radar. And if you think that I'll mention Tesla's "Optimus" robot or Boston Dynamics' "Atlas" next, you're wrong. Because there are even more companies that want to secure a place in the electromechanical world of work. For example, there is the Norwegian company 1X Technologies, which has already seen an investment of $100 million this year. With EVE there is a rolling robot model that is already available. NEO, an ongoing model, is currently still in development.

EVE (left) is the already available robot from 1X Technologies. The second model, NEO (right), is still under development.
EVE (left) is the already available robot from 1X Technologies. The second model, NEO (right), is still under development.

Then there is also Sanctuary AI with the 1,7 meter tall “Phoenix” robot, which should be able to run up to 5 kilometers per hour and carry up to 25 kg. The AI ​​system that will be used is developed by the company itself and called “Carbon”. Sanctuary AI boasts that Phoenix was the only general-purpose robot to be on TIME Magazine's “Best Inventions 2023” list. Whether this supposedly best robot invention will prevail against the competition remains to be seen. Also and above all, in which specific work area this should be the case.

Sanctuary AI is developing the humanoid robot called Phoenix. It remains to be seen how well the “human-like, general intelligence” will determine its operational capability.
Sanctuary AI is developing the humanoid robot called Phoenix. It remains to be seen how well the “human-like, general intelligence” will determine its operational capability.

The big names: Tesla, Boston Dynamics and Ghost Robotics

The most media-effective events have been in recent years Tesla and Boston Dynamics. The latter company can be described as a pioneer, especially with regard to the mechanical capabilities and movement sequences of robots on two to four legs. The robot dog Spot is probably the best-known example of robots of this type already in use. The police in North Rhine-Westphalia, among others, carried out tests for the use of Spot in 2022. This should not be confused with the robot dog from Ghost Robotics, a company that has nothing against the military use of its devices (including by Rheinmetall).

On the Ghost Robotics website it becomes clear that the general operational capabilities of robots presented for business can also be replaced with military examples.
On the Ghost Robotics website it becomes clear that the general operational capabilities of robots presented for business can also be replaced with military examples.

Funded and tested by Amazon: Agility Robotics

And then there is also Agility Robotics, a company also co-financed by Amazon, which is already using robots in the shipping company's warehouses. Amazon's investment in Agility Robotics took place in 2022. The latest investment in Figure - by two of Jeff Bezos' companies - shows that Amazon is serious and doesn't just want to rely on a single workhorse. I can hardly imagine that it's just about filling permanently empty positions. But it remains to be seen how and to what extent humanoid robots will be used in unpopular, if not inherently dangerous, jobs.

Agility Robotics shows that robots that take away your work can also look really cute.
Agility Robotics shows that robots that take away your work can also look really cute.

Humanoid robots: Use in warehouse logistics, trade, care, rescue, military

Of course, the whole thing raises the big question: What's the point of it all? When looking at the examples of use in warehouse logistics, you can imagine that replacing people with robots is not a question of danger, but of cost. You don't want to give employees higher pay and better working conditions. So robots are needed that clearly show the remaining people that they can be replaced. But where can Figure, Agility Robotics, Sanctuary AI, 1X Technologies and Co. still expect sales? Basically, there are a wide variety of areas of application - some understandable, others more dystopian.

It can make a more pleasant impression if a human-like robot helps lift a person who needs to be cared for. More than if an industrial-looking device that looks more like a forklift is used to support the nurses. But due to the currently specified payload of only 20 to 25 kg, this area of ​​application is not yet really conceivable. Searching for people buried after an earthquake or other disaster is more conceivable. Inspecting buildings that are at risk of collapsing or similar areas of application are also logical. Military deployment is the next step, which is also the most worrying.

What about the “dangerous jobs”?

Among other things, Figure says that the robot Figure 01 is supposed to be created for jobs that are too dangerous for humans. But nothing is really specified. As already mentioned, the video embedded above is a lot about warehouse logistics. I have already given my opinion on this. For me personally, there are still too many unanswered questions. Does the market provide enough “dangerous jobs” to justify the number of humanoid manufacturers or to provide them with enough sales? Where are the boundaries of the company and will they be e.g. B. exceeded for the military if the price is right? A difficult topic that I will continue to inform myself about.

Conclusion: Humanoid robots are the next big and scary thing

We can see from the already usable technological advances of the last few years and decades how the opportunities and damages are balanced. Generative AI, with its potential for deepfakes, misinformation and other misguided uses, is the most recent example. In the future, in addition to the digital world, the physical world will also be directly confronted with this when robot manufacturers enter the job market. It won’t just be about positions that need to be filled; not if someone comes up with the idea of ​​comparing the long-term costs of human labor with that of robots. In the latter case, further training can at least be carried out via a software update.

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