Taking Over the World

Humanoids, such as the NAO robot developed by a subsidiary of Japan's Softbank, are increasingly being put to work.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    New developments are being made in humanoid technology that could see the machines carry out tasks currently considered impossible for robots.

  • Facts


    • Hubo, developed by South Korean JunHo Oh, last year won the Darpa Robotics Challenge.
    • It can walk, drive, open a door, climb stairs and drill a hole.
    • Some 1.3 million robots, including humanoid machines, were sold for entertainment and recreation in 2014.
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Before he takes a first step, Hubo looks out at the floor, using his camera eyes to scan the uneven, gray concrete blocks. Then his motors whirr and he cautiously raises his right leg. It takes almost a minute to overcome the obstacle, but the fact is Hubo can walk. And he can do much more.

Hubo is one of the most advanced robots in the world. In 2015, it won the Darpa Robotics Challenge – a competition initiated by the U.S. Defense Department. You could call it the world championship of humanoid robots, and Hubo was the best of 23.

The 80-kilogram machine had to pass eight tests: driving a vehicle, opening a door, climbing stairs, drilling a hole, and so forth. It needed 44 minutes and 28 seconds to complete all the tasks.

Hubo’s creator, South Korean JunHo Oh, is proud of the success. On the professor’s desk, amid cords, circuit boards and stacks of paper, is the small black glass trophy. He hung the $2 million (€1.8 million) prize-money check at the entrance to his office.

“When I wanted to build the first humanoid robots 14 years ago, no one believed I could do it.”

Junho Oh, Head of Humanoid Robot Research Center

“When I wanted to build the first humanoid robots 14 years ago, no one believed I could do it,” he said.

Today the 62-year-old heads the Humanoid Robot Research Center in Daejeon, South Korea, 160 kilometers south of Seoul. The “Hubo Lab,” a low-rise, red brick building, is on the campus of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, or KAIST, the best-known technical university in the country.

Up to now, the humanoid machines have been laughed at – as a clever toy or a pipe dream. “But gradually everyone is noticing,” said Professor Oh. “A robot really can do things.”

Today, we couldn’t imagine life without our many technological helpers. Smartphones show us the way and know what the weather will be – and ever since Siri, they can also talk to us. Autonomous vacuum cleaners clean our floors and self-driven mowers cut our lawns. In industrial production, robot arms are standard in auto plants.

Now the next level of automated daily life has arrived: Machines resembling people are taking over hospitals, retirement residences and even our own homes.

Will humanoid machines with faces and artificial intelligence take away our work? Feed and care for the sick? Can they manage our households and talk with us? And in the end, will they be an opportunity or a threat?

What seems to some like science fiction is actually already here. In only a short time, processors, sensors and propulsion systems have increased in performance and dropped in cost. Image- and language-recognition also work much better now.

So humanoid robots are no longer for nerds only — not a golden, tin-plated C3PO from the Star Wars films. They are reality. They are increasingly coming to resemble humans and taking over our jobs. Slowly they are entering our lives.

In the Belgium city of Ghent, for example, a robot greets hotel guests, hands out room keys and calls for a taxi. And the U.S. hotel chain Hilton is currently working with IBM on a concierge-robot.

By the end of the year in Asia, Pizza Hut intends to install robots for taking orders at the cash register. And in Japan, Nissan uses humanoids at its dealerships to entertain waiting customers and their children.

Industrial companies long ago recognized the potential. The Airbus Group is testing humanoid robots on aircraft assembly lines. In car factories, robot cages are gradually disappearing. There are tests where people and grapplers work alongside each other, without security glass between them.

Hundreds of tech-firms, above all in the United States, are developing business models around artificial intelligence – a technology that could transform society even more radically than the industrial revolution.

Just this April, the German Aerospace Center inaugurated a new location involving robots at Oberpfaffenhofen in Bavaria.

In the future, humanoid robots will also build ships, disassemble atomic power plants, extinguish fires, search for earthquake survivors, defuse bombs, work in mining and dive deep into the oceans.

In short, they will find use wherever it is too dangerous, too narrow or too inhospitable for humans.

When Professor Oh wants to go from his lab to his company offices, he only has to open two doors. At the other end of the corridor is the Rainbow Co.

Cords and wires hang everywhere, motors and sensors are stacked on workbenches and metal shavings litter the floor. One of the 12 employees is finishing a robot hand. Clattering in the background is a computer-guided production center that makes almost all the components.

“Right now throughout the world, there are really cool robots, but scarcely any for sale,” said Professor Oh.

Hubo is different. The humanoid robot is perhaps not so fancy or quick in reactions, but it can be purchased and put to use. What Professor Oh is researching here with his students has gone into serial production.

Rainbow — or Robots for Artificial Intelligence and Boundless Walking — is one of the first humanoid manufacturers in the world. It has sold more than 20 robots since 2011, in the United States, Singapore, Hong Kong and Switzerland. Professor Oh owns Rainbow, with the university holding a minority stake and many students buying shares.

Its most expensive model is DRC-Hubo, the world champion. It costs a half-million dollars and customers include universities and research institutes. In all, six have been ordered and three are currently in production, which can take up to six months.

Customers are invited to Daejeon for a week to learn how to handle and maintain the robot. “Hubo isn’t an industrial robot,” the professor explained. “He is a fragile being.”

Professor Oh sees Hubo as an open platform promoting research in all areas — from space- to service-robotics and as a helper in industry.

He likes to compare his baby with a smartphone, for which each user can download appropriate apps. “Hubo is the iPhone of the future,” he laughed.


The Pepper robot performs concierge services at banks in Japan. Source: Reuters


The company will never generate profits in the billions like Apple. But already today, five years after its establishment, the company pays for itself.

The market for humanoid robots is huge. Some 1.3 million robots, including humanoid machines, were sold for entertainment and recreation in 2014, according to the International Federation of Robotics. The figure for 2015 to 2018 is projected to be 9 million, with estimated sales of $7.6 billion.

But not many manufacturers have a product ready for market. In Japan up to now, research has been conducted primarily by automakers.

Honda has been working on its Asimo robot since 2004. The carmaker presents it at trade fairs and U.S. President Barack Obama has even played soccer with it. The company’s newest robot resembles the “Michelin Man.” It can hop, dance, climb stairs and run at speeds up to nine kilometers per hour.

But up to now, Asimo hasn’t been sold. With an estimated price of $2.5 million, it’s easy to see why. Like its competitor Toyota, which has a series of robots named Partner in its portfolio, Honda uses the humanoid as a marketing platform – and for ongoing development in its core business, since many automotive systems are based on robotics research.

U.S. manufacturer Boston Dynamics also only develops prototypes. The latest version is a military robot named Atlas – its videos are clicked millions of times on YouTube. Atlas can move across inhospitable terrain, carry loads and get back up when pushed over.

Google bought the firm in 2013, but now the parent company Alphabet apparently wants to divest itself of the firm.

One reason might be because the Atlas robot is too reminiscent of the nasty killing machines in the Terminator movies. A more realistic reason, however, would be that the company sees no future for Atlas, since it can’t be marketed in the short term.

The Japanese telecom firm Softbank is currently demonstrating how robots can become a product for the masses.

When the company acquired French robot manufacturer Aldebaran in 2012, part of the package was a model named Pepper, with goggly eyes, a mouth and a tablet display on its chest. The robot costs about €1,400, but Softbank makes its real money by offering cloud services and guarantees for €180 a month.

Pepper can serve as a social companion, friend or a family member. It has no legs but can roll along making gestures and wiggling its body. It recognizes faces and language. For dialogue, it is connected to IBM’s super computer Watson.

Pepper is popular at companies as a greeter or entertainer at trade fairs, and also as a sales advisor and children’s animator. As a marketing platform, it is capable of conversing with people and guiding them through rooms. Pseudo-hormones are even included in its circuits: The robot can recognize people’s emotions – and react with its own “feelings.”

Softbank says it sells 1,000 models a month, mostly in Japan.

The company enjoys similar success with a smaller humanoid called Nao. The mini-robot, only 58 centimeters tall, can walk and interact with people. It costs about €5,000, and schools and universities use it for research.

But where is Germany in the humanoid robot field?

The country has been in the vanguard in robots, but now German-based robotics maker Kuka is being sold to a Chinese firm.

“That’s not a positive signal,” said industry consultant Uwe Haass. “There is no national strategy, too little investment financing and too little state support.”

Even with all their technological know-how, big German companies are doing too little, said Mr. Haass.

“Unfortunately, it’s like back with the telefax or video recorder: The product was developed here, but foreign companies made the big profits,” he said.

But a kitchen in Karlsruhe illustrates that Germany doesn’t have to play second fiddle in humanoid robotics. A robot named Armar-III recently rolled to the refrigerator, opened the door, took out a carton of juice and offered some to a visitor.

The kitchen is part of the Institute for Anthropomatics and Robotics at the Institute of Technology in Karlsruhe (KIT).

In a demonstration, Armar-III followed voice commands. Two monitors show what the robot “sees” — the floor plan of the kitchen, cups and packages of cookies on the table. If a new object is introduced, Armar-III scans and records it.

It understands what Tamim Asfour, who heads the robotics institute at KIT, calls “generalized descriptions of actions.”

“Once Armar has learned how to go get a carton of juice from the refrigerator, he can fetch any carton of juice from any refrigerator whatsoever,” said Professor Asfour.

He wants to develop not excessively programmed computers but intelligent machines.

“Humanoid robots won’t need experts to program them, as is the case with an industrial robot on an assembly line,” said the 48-year-old professor. “They should observe people and interact with them and their surroundings. They should then learn from the experience and apply the acquired knowledge to new situations.”

“Industry should turn the results of our research into products.”

Tamim Asfour, Professor, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

Over 40 axes of motion are built into Armar-III, along with six microphones. It has three laser scanners for avoiding collisions. Its eyes consist of two camera systems that can generate three-dimensional patterns of the surroundings. Its torso contains five computers and two car batteries. Overall weight: 150 kilograms.

Professor Asfour has been conducting research with the robot for 15 years. The next task Armar should learn is to grab everyday objects that are slippery and transparent, such as vases or glasses. Fruit is also an issue.

“The robot has to learn that certain pieces of fruit, regardless of how bent and misshapen, belong to the same category and that he can use the strategy he has learned to grasp them,” the professor explained.

The act of gripping looks so simple, but it is “one of the most complex cognitive processes” for human beings. What people can sense in a grasp should soon be possible for a robotic hand as well.

But the rolling kitchen robot is only a first step. The experts in Karlsruhe have long been investigating robots with legs. Armar-IV still hangs from metal supports, because he could topple over while walking – and hundreds of thousands of euros could be lost in the fall.

Armar-V is also being planned. It will no longer be a real robot – but an exoskeleton, blending human and machine. The robotic suits will be made from light metal and worn by workers who need to carry heavy items in factories. Or they could help in rest homes. The artificial skeleton recognizes from muscular tension when it should help the person inside.

Even if the robots are completely developed and produced at KIT, Professor Asfour and his students see themselves not as manufacturers but as primary researchers.

“Industry should turn the results of our research into products,” he said.

But what scares off many firms, besides the high cost of investment, is the lack of a legal framework. The liability issue has become all the more crucial ever since an autonomous Tesla vehicle crashed in the United States, killing its driver.

Who will be liable in the future if a nursing robot drops a patient? Or if a worker is crushed by a tin-plated colleague? Or if a kitchen robot poisons a restaurant guest?

“New legislation is needed” to answer those questions, said the industry consultant Mr. Haass.

Scientists have no doubt that humanoid robots with big eyes and facial expressions are the best form for coming to grips with our environment and being accepted by people. But Professor Asfour believes it will take decades until there are complete humanoid systems for catastrophes.

At the moment, our high expectations formed by television and cinema clash with the still somewhat slow and wobbly reality of robots.

“Scarcely any humanoid hardware robot can meet such expectations in the long term,” said Oliver Bendel, professor for commercial information technology at the University of Applied Sciences in Northwestern Switzerland.

Will robots and artificial intelligence make humans superfluous someday? Should we fear them?

Mr. Bendel offered some consolation: “Machines have already been replacing us for centuries, whether we think of mechanical looms, industrial robots or automatic tellers,” he said.

In general, Mr. Bendel doesn’t think intelligent machines are dangerous – if they are programmed with the correct meta-rules.

But it is clear to him that most human fields of labor will gradually be pushed aside – not only in production, but also in the office.

Mr. Bendel doesn’t see that as a disadvantage: “Our current ideology says people should work 8 to 12 hours a day for companies that are often foreign to them, in order to make products that are also mostly foreign to them.”

Robots could someday free us from the yoke of labor. They could give us more freedom to pursue other things. “In the time that is opened up, we could act creatively and charitably,” said Mr. Bendel.

Of course, the same hopes arose in connection with another technological achievement — the paperless office. No more time would be wasted on letters and faxes, and more time would be left for essentials.

The reality, however, is that never has so much time been wasted as by reading unimportant e-mails.

And that squandering of time has spread outside the office – thanks to smartphones, the mini-robots we carry everywhere in our pockets and purses.


Christian Wermke is an editor for Handelsblatt Live, covering politics, corporate executives and lifestyle. To contact the author:

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