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Anthropological Reflections on Anthropomorphic Robots

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An increase in the presence of anthropomorphic robots has occurred since the turn to the 21st century. In particular, the presence of anthropomorphic robots among human populations has increased over the past seven years. The latest example is BlessU-2, a robot priest now providing Biblical verses and absolution in five languages.

Anthropomorphic artificial constructs have long held humanity’s fascination. Stories of automata are common across time, culture (e.g. Greek, Chinese), and religion (e.g. Judaism, Islam). In almost every account, automata are intended to function better than homo sapiens sapiens, thus making our lives easier. Since the end of WWII, all industrialized countries have moved to increased automation in varying degrees. However, the technology for increasingly anthropomorphic robots has only recently advanced to a degree that allows human-like functionality.

BlessU-2 is not the first anthropomorphic robot specifically designed to interact with the general population. A Longquan Buddhist temple in China uses a small robot to assist in teaching about Buddhism. A robotic law enforcement officer is active in Dubai, and more than a few companies are working towards producing robots designed for those intimate adult moments.

This represents the trifecta of topics not to discuss at parties (religion, politics, sex), which is a boring party indeed. Surely it is not coincidence that these activity spheres also receive a high degree of attention by most people on a daily basis, a situation that has existed since pre-history. Furthermore, all three feature prominently in the definition of humanity, particularly in reference to the concepts of culture and society.

Anthropology provides a broad definition of culture as a strategy of adaptations. The adaptations manifest as learned, shared behaviors, transmitted non-biologically as ideas and rules that provide guidelines for relationships. A general definition of society is a group of people with sustained interaction and a shared culture. Sustained interaction means the broad-spectrum of relationships, so culture provides the guidelines for how we interact with our fellow humans during each and every interaction that occurs.

Seen through the lens of anthropology, these robots are examples of replacing one side of the relationship within the socio-cultural context of the human experience. Does the replacement of one side of a relationship with an artificial construct change how we define humanity? I posit that the definition does not change in the slightest because the use of robots is an example of an adaptive strategy, just like any other tool. All humans, to varying degrees, employ a relationship that replaces the “human” on one side of the human-to-human relationship. A good example is religion as it consists of a human-to-supernatural relationship. A more recent introduction is human-to-robot relationships such as at the ATM, the grocery store check-out, tablets and mobile phones.

The interesting question is why the use of anthropomorphic robots is increasing in popularity. Many studies show that people prefer non-human looking robots, and that while the human form is quite good for many things, it is not so good at quite a lot of other things for which different forms are more suitable. Is robot anthropomorphism representing a “build what you know” mentality? Is it a metric by which robotic engineers can compete since such a form requires a tremendous amount of work and a lot of energy to function? What do you think?

Archaeology, technology, science, movies and TV shows, video games, government and politics, reading sci-fi and fantasy, '60s/70s classic rock. These are the areas in which I spend my days (somewhere in there are food and travel...).

Engineering

DARPA has announced the first test of an extraordinary uncrewed submarine that takes inspiration from the manta ray

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Explore the most recent cutting-edge innovation from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, commonly referred to as DARPA. Introducing a colossal uncrewed submarine inspired by the manta ray, created by the same innovators behind hypersonic air-breathing weapons, submarine-detecting shrimp, and robot jazz musicians. Northrop Grumman’s prototype has just finished its initial in-water trial.

The submarine has been designed to transport substantial loads across extensive distances beneath the water’s surface without the presence of any human occupants for assistance. During deployment, it can enter a state of “hibernation,” where it remains attached to the seabed in order to conserve energy.

In 2022, Northrop Grumman stated that their design for the project would serve DARPA’s objective of generating “strategic surprise.” We believe it is safe to assert that they have successfully accomplished that objective.

In February and March of this year, DARPA conducted a comprehensive test of the prototype uncrewed underwater vehicle (UUV) off the coast of Southern California.

“The successful and comprehensive testing of the Manta Ray confirms that the vehicle is prepared to progress towards real-world operations. It was quickly assembled in the field using modular subsections,” stated Dr. Kyle Woerner, the DARPA program manager for Manta Ray. The integration of cross-country modular transportation, on-site assembly, and subsequent deployment showcases a unique capability for an extra-large unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV).

The level of specificity we can currently provide is limited to “extra-large.”. New Atlas reports that DARPA and Northrop Grumman have thus far maintained confidentiality regarding the majority of the technical details of the aircraft. However, it is speculated that the online images reveal concealed propulsors, an antenna, water inlets, and potentially maneuvering thrusters.

By examining the images, we can gain an understanding of the size and observe that its sleek curves truly resemble the animal it is named after—and perhaps even a few science fiction creations as well.

Manta rays, which belong to numerous species, can be found in various bodies of water worldwide. Numerous reports of these creatures actively interacting with divers and snorkelers show that they are sociable and intelligent. However, it was the elegant movement of the manta rays that truly motivated the engineers responsible for the development of the new UUV, thus upholding a longstanding practice of drawing inspiration from nature for design purposes.

Following deployment, the vehicle navigates the water with effective buoyancy-powered gliding, according to Woerner.

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An additional significant benefit of the Manta Ray UUV, emphasized by both DARPA and Northrop Grumman, is its capability to be transported in separate components and quickly reconstructed at the desired location. The prototype was transported from the build location in Maryland to the opposite side of the country and could also be useful in the field.

According to Woerner, transporting the vehicle directly to its intended area of operation helps to save energy that would otherwise be used during transit.

DARPA is presently collaborating with the US Navy to determine the subsequent actions for this technology. The exact timeline for the deployment of Manta Ray in actual water remains undisclosed.

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Artificial Intelligence

Boston Dynamics has retired its Atlas robot, showcasing its most impressive moments

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Boston Dynamics is discontinuing its hydraulic robot Atlas after years of pushing the limits. In order to bid adieu, the innovative firm has compiled a film montage showcasing the most remarkable instances of the mechanoid marvel, encompassing comical dancing routines, impressive acrobatic maneuvers, and a handful of unsuccessful attempts.

Atlas has been a source of inspiration for nearly ten years, igniting our creativity, motivating future generations of roboticists, and surpassing technical obstacles in the area. Boston Dynamics stated in a video aired on April 16 that it is now time for their hydraulic Atlas robot to rest and unwind.

“Please review all the achievements we have made so far with the Atlas platform,” they added.

Boston Dynamics, a robotics company based in Massachusetts, created Atlas for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s advanced technology division. Initially, it was conceived as a component of a prize competition with the aim of accelerating the progress of a humanoid robot capable of aiding in search and rescue missions.

Upon its public introduction in 2013, Atlas required a tether for stability and was limited to walking in a linear path. Almost.

A 1-year-old youngster has limited ability to walk and frequently stumbles. “As you observe these machines and draw comparisons to science fiction, it is important to bear in mind that this represents our current technological capabilities,” stated Gill Pratt, a program manager at DARPA who was involved in the design and funding of Atlas, in an interview with the New York Times in 2013.

Significant transformations have occurred since that time. The engineers at Boston Dynamics have meticulously tweaked the robot’s technology and algorithms throughout its development, enabling it to carry out physical tasks that would be difficult for most people with ease.

The most recent version of Atlas has a height of 150 cm, which is a little less than 5 feet, and a weight of 89 kilograms, equivalent to 196 pounds. With the help of its 28 hydraulic joints, this machine can achieve speeds of up to 2.5 meters (nearly 8 feet) per second. Additionally, it is capable of executing somersaults, athletic jumps, and 360° spins.

Additionally, it is equipped with a multitude of sensors that are utilized to accurately sense the immediate surroundings and respond accordingly in real-time. For example, if an obstacle is placed in the path of the robot, it will identify the issue and navigate around it. If you push it with a pole, it will elegantly adapt its body to stay upright.

Boston Dynamics has not provided an explanation for its decision to discontinue its renowned robot. Certain analysts have proposed that the corporation is preparing for the release of another novel product, but others have questioned whether Atlas has become a financial liability. While the company has successfully marketed its other inventions, such as the dog-like robot Spot, to different companies for diverse purposes, Atlas was never made available for sale.

According to IEEE Spectrum, Boston Dynamics has announced that they are retiring the hydraulic Atlas robot. Does this imply that a hydraulic Atlas robot is not the next item on the schedule? Currently, the outcome is uncertain and cannot be predicted.

It is uncertain what the future holds for the robots developed by Boston Dynamics, but we can only hope that it does not involve a rebellion by these machines.

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Artificial Intelligence

Boston Dynamics’ Atlas humanoid robot has transitioned to electric power

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Atlas is immobile, lying face down on a stack of connected gym mats. The only audio accompaniment is the humming of an electric motor. While it may not be completely silent, the noise level is significantly lower compared to the abrupt movements of its predecessors.

While the camera rotates, the robot’s legs flex at the knees. Initially, it is a spontaneous motion that gradually transitions into an eerie domain, reminiscent of scenes from a Sam Raimi film. The robot has successfully changed its position by cleverly rotating its legs, appearing as if it is lying on its back.

Atlas is positioned with its back facing the camera. Currently, the head rotates in a complete 180-degree motion, and subsequently, the torso mimics this movement. The object pauses briefly, allowing the camera to get a clear picture of its head—a circular screen with a ring-shaped light surrounding it. Once again, the torso rotates in alignment with the head’s 180-degree turn as Atlas moves away from the camera and exits the frame.

Boston Dynamics has recently announced that their humanoid robot, Atlas, has transitioned from a hydraulic system to an electric one, following in the footsteps of Bob Dylan.

The pace is rapid, with the steps still somewhat abrupt, although noticeably smoother than many of the recent commercial humanoids that have been introduced in the past few years. If anything, the gait evokes the bold self-assurance of Spot, a relative of Atlas who diverged from the humanoid lineage a few generations ago.

Brand new Atlas

The latest iteration of the robot is nearly indistinguishable. The top-heavy torso, bowed legs, and plated armor have been eliminated. There are no visible cables present on the sleek and slender new mechanical framework. The company, which has successfully defended against reactionary concerns about robopocalypse for many years, has chosen a more compassionate and considerate design compared to both the original Atlas and more modern robots such as the Figure 01 and Tesla Optimus.

The new robot’s appearance is more similar to that of Agility’s Digit and Apptronik’s Phoenix. The traffic-light-headed robot features a gentler and more whimsical design. According to the video, it is referred to as the “All New Atlas.” Boston Dynamics has deviated from its usual practice by retaining the research name for a product that it intends to market commercially. SpotMini was renamed Spot. The handle was transformed into a stretch. Currently, Atlas remains unchanged and is still referred to as Atlas.

“We may reconsider this when we are fully prepared to construct and distribute on a large scale,” states Boston Dynamics CEO Robert Playter in an interview with. “However, I believe that at present, it is beneficial to preserve the branding.”

The executive’s statement reveals the project is still in its initial phases. Boston Dynamics intends to start pilot testing of the electric Atlas at Hyundai facilities soon, with full-scale production following in a few years.

“Starting next year, we will be conducting on-site experiments with Hyundai,” states Playter. “We currently possess Hyundai equipment at our location.” We have been engaged in this task for a considerable period of time. In order to achieve success, it is imperative to possess a plethora of attributes beyond merely possessing innovative technology. In order to justify the investment in a robot, it is crucial to fully comprehend the use case and ensure that there is enough productivity to make it worthwhile.

Performing a complete reversal

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The most remarkable aspect of the 40-second “All New Atlas” teaser is the robot’s motions. They serve as a reminder that constructing a humanoid robot does not necessitate maximizing its human-like qualities. Despite billions of years of evolution, as one investor pointed out in the past, humans have not yet perfected themselves as machines. If we are going to design machines that resemble us, why not construct ones that possess capabilities beyond our own?

“We have constructed a collection of bespoke actuators that are powerful and adaptable, installed at the majority of joints,” states Playter. “The range of motion is extensive.” The compact design of this robot effectively harnesses the strength and agility of an exceptional athlete, allowing us to utilize its capabilities in various applications.

It is important to remember that Boston Dynamics has built its reputation through a series of popular videos over the course of many years. New additions to the canon are equally likely to feature a robot’s dance moves as they are to offer anything truly practical in an industrial environment. Therefore, it is challenging to separate the features that the company considers genuinely functional from those that are merely intended to impress.

Commencing in the prone position, for example, provides an opportunity to demonstrate the impressive reverse crab leg maneuver while also serving a practical purpose. Boston Dynamics proudly demonstrated in the farewell video of the hydraulic Atlas that falling down is an inherent aspect of its function, as is the ability to recover and stand up again. In reality, the majority of the current generation of industrial robots necessitates human intervention in the event of a failure. Conversely, a robot that can autonomously remove dust from its surface and resume its tasks is highly advantageous for enhancing productivity.

The system’s agility significantly enhances its potential for productivity. It reminds me of Agility’s Digit demonstrations (the company is notably the only one of its kind demonstrating systems at this magnitude), in which a robot walks to a shelf, rotates, walks to the conveyor belt, rotates again, and walks back. When you multiply that task by hundreds, or even thousands, per day, you start to realize the importance of saving valuable seconds.

“It will possess a range of movements that surpass human capabilities,” Playter explains. “There will be highly utilitarian applications for that.”

Minimizing the robot’s turning radius is crucial in confined areas. These machines are intended to be brownfield solutions, meaning they are specifically designed to be seamlessly integrated into pre-existing workflows within existing spaces. Enhanced maneuverability could ultimately determine whether one can effectively operate in a particular environment or if the layout needs to be redone.

Cranium and upper extremities

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The hands featured in the video are not newly created, as they have previously been used on the hydraulic model. However, they also signify the company’s choice to not strictly adhere to human design as a guiding principle. The distinction lies in the choice of using three fingers instead of four on the end effectors.

“A hand contains a great deal of intricacy,” states Playter. When using actuators to interact with the world, it is essential to anticipate and ensure both reliability and robustness. Therefore, we intentionally designed these objects with less than five fingers in order to manage and reduce their level of complexity. We are currently investigating various generations of individuals. We desire a grasping mechanism that adheres to regulations and is capable of adjusting to various shapes while possessing advanced sensing capabilities to accurately detect contact.

Internally, the head is likely the most controversial element of the design. The large, circular screen bears resemblance to a vanity mirror.

“It was a design element that we were greatly concerned about,” says Playter. “All the other individuals possessed a humanoid form.” I desired it to be distinct. We desire a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere. It offers a range of colors for a visual presentation. Undoubtedly, the object contains concealed sensors, but its design primarily aims to convey a sense of amicability. That knowledge will be crucial for effectively engaging with these entities in the future.

A Christmas Atlas

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The landscape has undergone significant changes in the past decade since the hydraulic Atlas was first introduced. There are several other companies, such as Figure, Apptronik, Tesla, and 1X, that also have humanoid robots like Electric Atlas.

There has been a significant increase in interest from our end. Three significant events, in my opinion, are what have caused the increase. Hyundai paid almost one billion dollars to acquire Boston Dynamics. That really caught everyone’s attention, making them realize there was a way out. Tesla’s expression of interest in manufacturing has confirmed the validity of our long-standing efforts. Furthermore, the rise of AI as a valuable tool in addressing general challenges is making all of this possible. We have taken our time to make this announcement, as we wanted to conduct thorough research to ensure that we can effectively address manipulation issues and have full confidence in our new generation of machines.

Despite Boston Dynamics’ significant advantage in the field of humanoids, Playter mentions that the company managed to assemble the initial version of the new robot around Christmas 2023. Prior to that, it was addressing numerous intricate issues in simulation.

This week, it appears that the company is prepared to showcase the capabilities of the robot, or at least provide a glimpse into its initial plans for the system.

Intelligence in a broad sense
One thing that can be said about Elon Musk is that he consistently makes ambitious commitments. During the initial stages of Optimus’ public debut, when the Tesla ‘bot seemed to resemble a human in spandex, the executive discussed a comprehensive system capable of performing various tasks. Imagine having an Optimus that can handle your factory work, run errands, and even prepare a delicious dinner for you. That’s the aspiration, isn’t it?

The reality is, of course, one that is built upon taking small steps forward. Robotics companies are currently engaged in discussions about “general-purpose humanoids,” but their systems are currently focused on scaling one task at a time. For many individuals, the primary objective is to transport payloads from one location to another. To fully leverage the form factor, a broader level of intelligence will be necessary.

The app store model seems to offer the most straightforward solution. Developer access has indeed played a significant role in expanding Spot’s range of features. According to Playter, Boston Dynamics has a different approach in mind for Atlas.

“We will focus on developing an application rather than creating a platform,” he states. In our experience, the key to making progress quickly is to prioritize a specific application and actively work towards solving any challenges that arise. We cannot rely on others to solve these problems for us. I believe that AI is a crucial component in this context. To ensure the efficiency of tasks, they will be enhanced with AI techniques.

Developers now have access to Spot’s reinforcement learning algorithm, thanks to the company’s recent decision. This work will be crucial for Atlas’ expanding skillset.

Thinking creatively

In order to achieve success, Playter emphasizes the importance of thinking outside the box.

“I believe there are numerous other robots capable of accomplishing that,” he remarks. Humanoids should be capable of handling a wide range of tasks. You have two hands. As a business owner, you need to be able to handle intricate and heavy geometric shapes that a basic box picker wouldn’t be able to manage. And you have to handle a massive volume of these shapes, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. I believe the era of the single-task robot is long gone. Stretch is a unique application where a robot can efficiently navigate and handle boxes.

What other responsibilities will the new Atlas have on the Hyundai show floor, similar to those of a business owner? The company shared a video in February that contains the solution. The video shows the hydraulic version of the robot interacting with the Hyundai parts that Playter previously mentioned.

“With our extensive experience in the field of dynamic mobility, we possess the strength and expertise to handle substantial payloads while ensuring exceptional mobility,” he explains. Being able to handle heavy, complex, and massive objects will set us apart from the competition. The strut in the video likely weighs around 25 pounds. Acquiring wheels: we will be releasing a video later on as part of our comprehensive initiative, showcasing the various manipulation tasks we have been conducting with Atlas using real-world objects. I’m quite certain we have a good grasp on how to handle that aspect, and I haven’t observed anyone else attempting it thus far.

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