Of Course Robots Don't Need To Look Human

A recent Wall Street Journal article went to great length to demonstrate that robots, particularly service bots, don't need to look human.

Building human robots turns out to be a big challenge, said Professor Giorgio Metta of Genova’s Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia. Humans are very, very good at being human. Robots aren’t.

At the at the recent InnoRobo conference held in Lyon Mr. Metta was demonstrating iCub, a robot about the size of a small child. “There is this general belief that robots will be very powerful. In fact electric motors are nothing like as powerful as human muscles,” he said. “There are fundamental problems in materials, in the structure of the body.”

If it is so hard, and everyone agrees it is, why do it? Uwe Haass from the Cognition for Technical Systems at Munich’s technical university, said the desire to build human-like robots is deeply rooted. “It is the coronation of the creation. Many roboticists understand the human body as a wonderful creation of God or of evolution. Everything is so fantastic.”

Will Jackson, CEO of Engineered Arts Limited, a U.K.-based manufacturer of RoboThespian—an entertainment robot aimed at museums and tourist attractions—is highly skeptical that there is ever going to be a general, humanoid robot that will work in your home doing the dishes, or vacuuming the floor. “You do not make something human-shaped to do those jobs. Humans are really poorly adapted at doing most repetitive manual tasks.”

Science fiction fans had this pointed out for them generations ago. In his classic story Q.U.R., sf great Anthony Boucher pointed out the differences between a usuform robot and a humanoid robot:

"Almost every robot, except perhaps a few like farmhands, does only one or two things and does those things constantly. All right. Shape them so that they can best do just those things, with no parts left over. give them a brain, eyes and ears to receive commands, and whatever [sensory] organs they need to do their work...

That's the source of your whole robot epidemic. They were all burdened down with things they didn't need...

"But this can't be done overnight. People are used to android robots... They'll be scared of your unhuman-looking contraptions... Give'em a name. A good name... Keep 'robots' thats common domain... I've got it. Usuform. Quinby's Usuform Robots. Q.U.R."

Update: Winchell Chung of Project Rho points out that H. Beam Piper described this to readers in his 1961 novel The Space Vikings when describing serving robots:

As they sat down, he aimed his ultraviolet light-pencil at a serving robot. Unlike Mardukan robots, which looked like surrealist conceptions of Pre-Atomic armored knights, it was a smooth ovoid floating a few inches from the floor on its own contragravity; as it approached, its top opened like a bursting beetle shell and hinged trays of food swung out. The boy looked at it in fascination.

End update.

Via Wall Street Journal.

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