10 Robots with Eerie Human Qualities

Humanoid robots are looking and acting more human than ever.
  • It’s one thing to read about humanoid robots in science fiction; it’s another to see them at work.

    Take Sophia. The creation of roboticist David Hanson, Sophia’s expressiveness has placed it in face-to-face meetings with leaders in banking, insurance, and auto manufacturing. It even landed a guest spot with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show, where it cracked jokes and played “rock, paper, scissors” with the host.

    Or consider Geminoid HI-2. Geminoid looks so eerily similar to its creator, scientist Hiroshi Ishiguro, that it’s difficult to look at photos of them together and know which is which.

    It’s enough to make most of us feel just a tad uncomfortable.

    Like it or not, though, the era of humanoid robots has begun. Here, we provide a glimpse of that coming era. From the beautiful to the fanciful to the realistic, following are 10 of the most unusual and photogenic humanoid robots.

  • Hiroshi Ishiguro, a professor at Osaka University’s Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, wanted to know whether it was possible to build a “tele-operated” android that could act as a replacement for a person in face-to-face meetings. To provide an answer, he constructed an eerily similar android of himself called Geminoid.

    Geminoid HI-2 (shown here), not only looks like Ishiguro, but moves like him, as well. Basic parts include a plastic skull, metal skeleton and silicone skin. Movement is accomplished through the use of 50 pneumatic actuators and electric motors, powered by an air compressor, airflow control valves and a DC power source.

    In all, Geminoid has 50 degrees of freedom – 13 in the head, 15 in the body, and 22 in the legs and arms. But while the humanoid bears a stunning resemblance to Ishiguro, the jury is still out on whether it can effectively replace a human.

    “When I saw the static geminoid, it was like a mirror,” Ishiguro wrote in a technical paper on the subject. “However, when it naturally moved, it was not myself, although we have copied my movement.”

    Still, Ishiguro’s android was good enough to capture worldwide attention, suggesting that we can expect more such efforts from him and others in the future.

    (Image source: ATR Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories)

  • The Mark 1 robot from the Mark Robotic Lab is the product of a 43-year-old Hong Kong designer named Ricky Ma who wanted to model a robot after a Hollywood star. After spending roughly $50,000 and 18 months on the project, he unveiled the robot to worldwide attention in 2016, saying he had realized a childhood dream.

    The female prototype robot was capable of responding to verbal commands, moving its arms and legs, contracting its facial muscles, lifting the corners of its lips, raising its eyebrows, smiling, and bowing. And although he didn’t disclose the name of the Hollywood star he modeled it after, consensus in newspapers and magazines held that it was Scarlett Johannson.

    Ma did say that 70% of the humanoid’s body, including its skeleton, was created with 3D-printed parts. Potential applications for the robot include nursing assistant, home care worker, and entertainer for promotional events. Ma plans to offer an Instruction Manual for “makers” who want to build their own such models.

    (Image source: Mark Robotic Lab)

  • Pepper from SoftBank Robotics can serve as a host to attract visitors and provide information, or as a promoter to engage customers. The four-foot-tall humanoid robot features a 3D camera to detect people and read their emotions, and has the ability to move naturally, identify sounds, avoid obstacles, and recharge independently. It can also turn its arms up to an angle of 20 degrees, enabling it to make friendly gestures during conversations.

    SoftBank has marketed the robot to the hospitality and auto industries as a host. The company’s engineers are even working to endow Pepper with face recognition. Using a database of more than 13 billion photographs, they hope Pepper will be able to identify and authenticate customers. SoftBank sells the humanoid robots for $25,000, and hopes to offer a developer edition.

    (Image source: SoftBank Robotics)

  • Another major effort from roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro, “Erica” is an android aimed at providing a talking friend for members of the aging population in Japan. And because Erica’s role is to serve as a friend, beauty is one of its critical features.

    In an interview with The Guardian, Ishiguro called Erica the “most beautiful and intelligent android in the world,” saying that he used pictures of 30 attractive women to design the robot’s face and body features.

    Still, Erica is more than just a pretty face. It’s capable of having intelligent conversations and, as such, incorporates voice recognition, voice synthesis, human tracking, and natural motion generation. It also has 19 degrees of freedom for face, neck, shoulders, and waist, enabling it to express feelings through facial expressions and gestures.

    Although Erica is not yet available for sale, USA Today predicted that it would eventually cost $200,000 in today’s money.

    (Image source: ATR Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories).

  • Toyota hopes to accomplish two things with its T-HR3 robot: Allow users to remotely control it (see photo), while minimizing its force of contact with individuals and objects surrounding it.

    To that end, the company’s engineers endowed the T-HR3 with so-called Torque Servo Modules at each of its 29 body parts. The technology promotes safety by measuring the force by and on the T-HR3, and then conveying that information to the operator using force feedback.

    The end result is that the robot can safely assist humans in a variety of settings, including home, medical facilities, construction sites, disaster areas, and even outer space.

    (Image source: Toyota Motor Corp.)

  • Hanson Robotics’ Sophia robot is probably best known for its appearance with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show, where it cracked jokes and played “rock, paper, scissors” with the host. But its reach goes far beyond that.

    Hanson Robotics says the robot has met with leaders in banking, insurance, the auto industry, and media, as well. It has also appeared on stage as a panelist at high-level technical conferences to discuss robotics and artificial intelligence.

    The product of former Disney Imagineer David Hanson, Sophia incorporates three distinctively human traits – creativity, empathy, and compassion. It’s even capable of humor. On The Tonight Show, it suggested to a clearly uncomfortable Fallon, “Maybe I should host the show.”

    (Image source: Hanson Robotics)

  • If you’re worried about robots taking factory jobs, then you should take a hard look at the ARMAR-6, developed by the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.

    The ARMAR-6 can respond to voice commands, collaborate with workers, and “proactively offer support to maintenance technicians,” according to a press release. That means, not only that the robot can hand a tool to worker, but that it can figure out which tool is needed before the worker even asks for it.

    ARMAR-6 comes from a long line of humanoid robots developed by Karlsruhe, including models with multiple degrees of freedom in the head and neck, microphones for communication, and inertial sensors. The newest robot, announced in 2018, is being tested by an online grocery store in the UK. Karlsruhe says the new robot “will learn through observations and will augment the humans’ capabilities by completing tasks that require a level of precision or physical strength that are not available to human workers.”

    (Image source: Karlsruhe Institute of Technology)

  • The Han robot from Hanson Robotics adds a dash of sorely needed humor to the sometimes-creepy world of humanoid robots.

    Han, which made its public debut at a Hong Kong electronics fair in 2015, was immediately notable because of its ability to take questions from the crowd and do media interviews. The robot, which consists of a neck, head, and partial torso, is equipped with smooth facial skin and multiple actuators that enable it to be highly expressive. It uses that expressiveness to its advantage, making funny faces to go with its dry wit and proper British accent.

    Surprisingly, Hanson views Han as a service robot. “Underneath his bald head and somewhat sardonic smile is a humanoid robot whose primary focus is to serve,” the company writes.

    (Image source: Hanson Robotics)

  • The well-known Albert Einstein HUBO is one of the rare humanoids that is helping engineers understand the softer side of human-robot relationships.

    The product of a collaboration between Hanson Robotics and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, Einstein HUBO’s real strength is its ability to understand and mimic facial expressions. It is currently housed at UC San Diego’s California Institute for Telecommunication and Information Technology, where it is helping researchers study how robots and humans perceive emotions and interpret facial cues.

    Researchers hope that if it can develop emotional intelligence, it will pave the way for robots to participate in education, health care, fine arts, and customer service.

    (Image source: Hanson Robotics)

  • The iCub robot is a 40-inch-high, 48-lb robot that looks and “thinks” like a human child.

    Built by the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), iCub serves as a test bed for the “embodied cognition” hypothesis – that is, that human-like manipulation is vital to the development of human cognition. Like a baby, it learns its cognitive skills using its limbs and senses. To accomplish that, it employs 53 motors that move the head, arms, hands, waist, and legs. It can see and hear, has a sense of proprioception (body configuration), and understands movement by employing accelerometers and gyroscopes.  

    Over time, iCub has learned to crawl, solve complex 3D mazes, shoot arrows with a bow, express emotions through facial movements, grasp small objects, and avoid collisions. The robots are constructed by IIT and cost about $266,000 each.

    (Image source: Wikipedia/ By Jll at English Wikipedia)

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Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 34 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.  

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