Machine shapes based on the human form is an old idea, dating from Hephaestus in ancient Greek mythology and spanning through the civilizations and centuries. We see it in Jewish folk tales such as Golem’s and Davinci’s drawings, in Arabic illustrations and English novels. Nowadays, the advances in science and technology, from dynamics to real-time imaging and speech, have allowed realistic robots to see the light of the day which have a wide range of vocabulary and “facial” expressions. Yet, the question remains. Why do we thrive to create robots shaped like humans? Why do we go through the extra steps and efforts of developing faces and expressions for some and thorough detailed AI for others? Why are we troubling ourselves with the hydraulics of a biped, often unstable and complex, rather than a quadruped or simply fixed machines?
Do we need robots shaped like humans?
There is no denying that several applications are ill-suited for the human form anyway: space exploration and de-mining for example use mobile machines that are qualified as robots but not biped and they certainly don’t need the structured face of a human. Besides, so called humanoids require multi-complex collaborations on so many different specialist levels that they should only be considered where there is an actual need for a robot to take the human form.
Human-like robots are often associated with controversial activities: while some may feel uncomfortable at the growing number of singletons who opt for programmable companions, the threat of using humanoids in military combat is a greater threat, especially when you consider the great strides made in artificial intelligence (AI). Multi-billionaire Elon Musk has recently been discussing his concerns about integrating AI with robots and using them to fight in war zones. His main concern is for the actual future of the human race once these robots can think for themselves. Will they ever turn on the human race or could we simply become cannon-fodder in the confines of military combat?
Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori hypothesized that there will be an initial enthusiasm as the degree of similarity between robots and humans increases. Then, the enthusiasm will turn into aversion and rejection once the similarity becomes extremely close and they start to actively replace humans in the workplace and society.
Answering to the gods
A weak reason often cited is the past imagery that we are answering to the Gods in all mythology, who have shaped us after them. The theory goes that we in return also shape our inventions after us (the human race taking on a god complex?). The old tales and the folk legends often narrated human-like figures, whether it be other creatures such as faeries or human endeavours such as Frankenstein. Even Aliens are depicted in human-like shapes and kept within this graspable imagery in our universal psyche. Therefore, it follows that human attempts at creating robots will fatefully use the same logic, the same imageries and the inspiration from our direct environment.
Is it comforting to see robots shaped like humans?
There are though other more practical reasons: the world we have been shaping around us answers to an active biped form of living. An average human being will feel comfortable and take their surroundings for granted. Therefore, the robots created to work within such an environment should be able to go around with the same ease and one can see how not being a moving biped can be bothersome in this world. While many advances and accommodations have been made to improve access for people in wheelchairs or with physical disabilities, it is still all very basic and very limited, and often confined to just a few places and zones of the world. Moreover, this goes beyond locomotive features: doors have knobs, buttons are dimensioned for small fingers and the tools which are used by a human hand, etc. All the more pressure to create robots where even their most rudimentary features such as thumbs have to be human like to be accepted.
Can robots and humans ever really interface?
There is also the argument that in order to improve a robot’s grasp of the world they should interface with humans in the most human form possible. Registering body language, being able to reproduce it, interpreting a human’s state of mind or health through their attitude and posture, imitating specific gestures, etc. These are just a few examples of learning that can only be processed and reproduced when the robot has access to the same environment as humans. In many ways the amalgamation of artificial intelligence with cutting edge robotics is effectively teaching robots how to be humans, how to think like us and, perhaps more importantly, avoid the many mistake we make.
Obviously, we are still far away from the technology allowing a full replication of human abilities by cybernetic and automated creations (in simple terms robots shaped like humans). We have also yet to figure out how to instil self-awareness, concept of consequences and an ignited inner moral compass within a robot. The path to fully fledged engineered humanoids will be long and winding with no guarantee we will ever get there.
One has to trust that if humankind ever reached such levels of technological advancement it would have also transitioned as a species in ethical and philosophical matters too – ones that would ensure future generations use such technology responsibly. Then again, the advancements in artificial intelligence are already changing our world today, how will robots shaped like humans have advanced in 10 years time never mind by the next century!