General purpose humanoid robots? Bill Gates is a believer


The robotics industry loves a good, healthy debate. Of late, one of the most intense ones centers around humanoid robots. It’s been a big topic for decades, of course, but the recent proliferation of startups like 1X and Figure — along with projects from more established companies like Tesla — have put humanoids back in the spotlight.

Proponents of the form factor point out that we’ve built our world to fit ourselves, so it makes sense that we would build robots like ourselves to fit it. There are also certain advantages in terms of reach, the ability to walk up stairs and the dexterity that comes with our design.

Of course, anyone who tells you that the human body is the pinnacle of organic machinery is either misinformed or lying to you. I’ve spent the past year dealing with something called “degenerative disc disease,” a perfect testament to our imperfect design.

The form factor also flies in the face of decades of conventional wisdom that has championed single-purpose robots – that is machines that are built  to do one thing extremely well a whole lot of times. And then there’s the whole “general purpose” part, which tends to get tossed around with little thought to its underlying complexity.

Humanoid robots can, however, now claim a big tech name among their ranks. Bill Gates this week issued a list of “cutting-edge robotics startups and labs that I’m excited about.” Among the names are three companies focused on developing humanoids. The first and most prominent is Agility, whose Digit robot looks the least like a human of the three. Also included are Apollo-maker Apptronik and UCLA’s RoMeLa (Robotics and Mechanisms Lab), which is behind the soccer playing ARTEMIS.

Here’s what Gates has to say about Apptronik,

What’s more useful: multiple robots that can each do one task over and over, or one robot that can do multiple tasks and learn to do even more? To Apptronik, an Austin-based start-up that spun out of the human-centered robotics lab at the University of Texas, the answer is obvious. So they’re building “general-purpose” humanoid bi-pedal robots like Apollo, which can be programmed to do a wide array of tasks—from carrying boxes in a factory to helping out with household chores.

Writing about Agility, he notes, “If we want robots to operate in our environments as seamlessly as possible, perhaps those robots should be modeled after people.” Digit is currently ahead of the pack in terms of real world deployments, including a recent pilot at Amazon warehouses that helped set the stage for Figure’s recent BMW deal.

Other firms mentioned in the piece include robotic perception firm Field AI and Tevel, which builds apple-picking drones.

An endorsement like this might not move the needle too far in the humanoid direction, and Gates is very much not a roboticist. It is, however, enlightening to see the form factor continue to gain more mainstream legitimacy by the day.


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