I agree Jon. Your porpoise analogy is a good example. Automation is a good name for it. A good portion of consumer goods are effectively made by robots, since the automated line is really a robot. The preference consumers have for the automated teller machines is proof that we don't need to dress up our automation to look like people.
Mention "robot" and many people think of something from "Star Wars" or "The Day the Earth Stood Still." Perhaps it's better to think about automation. When people wanted to create an automated piano they didn't create a mechanical "humanoid" to press the keys and replace the human player. Instead they used a roll of paper punched with holes to control the keys. Automation in Detroit took a different approach--human-like robotic arms that sprayed paint and welded metal. You design the automation to fit the task. If I want an aquatic robot that can swim quickly, it will look like a porpoise and not like a human or a movie-prop "robot."
Many people might feel comfortable around human-like robots, but they all look a bit creepy to me.
I agree, Dave. Robots may mimic human actions or the actions of other living things. The most successful use of robots so far seem to be in the automated production of goods. These robots mimic hand and arm motions somewhat, but that's coincidental. Ultimately, robots will be successful as they reduce costs, improve performance, or perform in areas humans can't reach, such as in space or toxic environments.
I don't have a strong opinion on the aesthetic, psychological, or cultural implications of humanoid robots. But there are practical reasons for employing aspects of human form and function (as well as the form and function of other living things) in robot design -- and engineering design in general.
Over a timescale of billions of years, living things have evolved all kinds of interesting solutions to mechanical problems, such as locomotion, which I strongly doubt any engineer would be intelligent or creative enough to come up with on his or her own. Living things also give us examples of self-assembling, nanostructured, multifunctional materials, such as bone or spider silk, which rival any of our current industrial materials. That's not to mention sensing methods, self-organization, etc., all of which have been perfected by living organisms.
When I look back on my education, one thing which I really regret is the fact that I never took a single biology class after my freshman year of high school. I'm trying to remedy that now, with an MIT biology class which is freely available on OpenCourseWare.
Humans are genetically programmed to see faces...the kind of faces hiding in the bushes that are friendly, spying, about to attack, or have a mouthful of sharp fangs that wish to devour you. Since we see faces in just about everything anyway, why not design a face or humanoid style into the product on purpose. At least that will allow the designers to control the "happy" or "aggressive" perception that users get when they see their product. Rather than, for example, purchasing an automatic rocking chair that just happens to look like a hungry tarantula...
Definitely an interesting question, Alex, and one I'm sure you'll get plenty of feedback on. I agree with the sentiment expressed in your post that people are essentially human programming machines, thus more likely to mimic their own behaviors and patterns in the robots they design especially as those robots get more sophisticated.
Still, I think there's got to be a place for both kinds. For industrial applications deep in the factory or in out in space, for example, there's no reason why a robot should exhibit any ressemblance to humans. However, for applications where there is heavy human interaction, then it's probably quite comforting and even more productive to deal with a machine that has human-like traits as part of enhancing the collaboration experience.
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