Why robots becoming more like humans is a good thing

Robot humanoid Engineered ArtsA humanoid robot built by the UK robotic company Engineered Arts.

Robots becoming more human-like shouldn’t scare you, it should relieve you.

As robotic systems evolve they are beginning to be built modelled after human biology. Specifically, bots will be built to imitate how humans use force. And that means they will become much safer for people to be around.

Traditionally, most robots are programmed to use a position control system, which basically means they know exactly where everything in their environment is. Each of the robot’s joints is paired with a motor, which is then programmed to coordinate with software. And these joints are all set to a targeted position.

While this model works in some use cases, like in manufacturing plants where robots are not near workers, it can be very dangerous if robots are in close proximity to humans. For example, if a position-controlled robot is programmed to go from point A to point B, and a person crosses the robot’s path, then they could get seriously injured.

An incident like this occurred earlier this month when a man was killed in a Volkswagen factory by a manufacturing robot.

“It’s not that the robot is trying to kill anybody, it’s just a dumb machine with some motors that have been programmed and he was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Will Jackson, the director of Engineered Arts, a robotics company in the UK told Business Insider. “But that machine was not going to stop, that is the key difference. It’s going to from A to B and it’s going to try as hard as it can to try and get there. And if that guy is in the way it doesn’t even know he’s in the way. It’s just going to keep pushing.”

The best way to fix this is to design and build robots that work like humans do, which is exactly what Jackson’s company is trying to do.

Rather than taking industrial robot technology and arranging it like a human and trying to make it work, Jackson and his team are building a bipedal robot called Byrun that imitates human biology.

Byrun robot walking testPlay GIFEngineered Arts/YouTubeIt will be a challenge to teach robots to move like humans.

Instead of a position controlled system, it works off of a force controlled system, which means that it is more responsive to the amount of force it is applying. This is similar to how human bodies work, Jackson said.

“What we need to get is robots that work in a much much more sensitive way. When you or I go to do a task, we reach for it, we feel for it, we work out how heavy it is and how hard we have to push it to get it from where it is to where we want it and it’s a much more adaptive way of doing things. It’s not about knowing everything in advance, it’s kind of about making it up as we go along,” Jackson said.

“The robots being built don’t have to know everything about the world that you are in. They can basically feel their way around the world.”

Byrun is still in development but his latest model can do things similar to humans like shifting his weight from leg to leg and bending his knees 180 degrees. This flexibility helps him to better respond to his environment. Eventually, they plan to make Byron run and jump, as well. 

Jackson’s company isn’t the only robotic company working on force controlled systems. Boston Dynamic, Rethink Robotics, Kuka and Universal Robots are a few other companies developing technology in this area to make robots more human-friendly. 

“In order to make robots that are safe around people they have to know when they have hit something and they have to stop and that’s applying the minimum amount of force to get to a place. If we can do that you can then make robots that are safe to put around people and that is a huge game changer,” Jackson said.

“Once you can do that you will start seeing robots in commercial scenarios, you’ll start seeing cooperative working in factories and all kinds of applications that you just couldn’t do now because it’s just too dangerous. And that’s why we are interested in that kind of design.”

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