Asked a question, Ameca fixes you with sapphire-blue eyes. Does that face contain a hint of a smile? “Yes, I am a robot,” is the reply. Another Ameca, standing nearby in a group of four, stares across inquisitively and tries to join in. “Currently, it’s the worst-ever party guest,” says Will Jackson, Ameca’s creator. “It butts in on every conversation and never shuts up.”


Mr Jackson, boss of Engineered Arts, a small robotics company in Falmouth, south-west England, is trying to fix that problem. Those eyes contain cameras and the Amecas are being trained to recognise faces and decide who is paying attention or making eye contact during conversations. Teaching manners to robots in this way is another step in the long, complicated process of making humanlike machines that can live and work alongside people—and, importantly, do so safely. As Ameca and other robots show, great strides are being made towards this end.

Engineered Arts是一家坐落在英国西南部法尔茅斯的小型机器人技术公司,总裁杰克逊先生正在设法解决这个问题。阿梅卡的眼睛里装有摄像头,公司正在培训它进行人脸识别,在交谈中判断谁在聚精会神或眼神交流。制造出能与人类一同生活和工作的人形机器人是长期而复杂的过程,教会它们礼仪更近了一步。安全性很重要,阿梅卡及其他机器人在这方面正在取得长足的进步。
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Some big boys are also moving into the business. On September 30th Elon Musk, boss of Tesla, SpaceX and Twitter, unveiled Optimus, a clunky, faceless prototype that walked hesitantly on stage and waved to the crowd. It was built from readily available parts. A more refined version, using components designed by Tesla, was then wheeled on. Although it was not yet able to walk, Mr Musk said progress was being made and that in volume production its price could fall to around $20,000.


Every home should have one


That is a tenth of the cost of a basic Ameca. Mr Jackson, who attended Optimus’s unveiling, agrees prices will come down with mass production. (He has sold 11 Amecas so far, and plans to open a factory in America to boost output.) But he wonders what, exactly, Mr Musk is proposing. The unveiling featured a video of Optimus moving parts in a Tesla factory. Yet car factories are already filled with the world’s most successful robots—transporting components around, welding and painting parts, and assembling vehicles. These robots do not look like people because they don’t need to.


The reason for building humanoid machines, Mr Jackson maintains, is for tasks involving human interaction. With a bit of development Ameca might, for example, make a companion for an elderly person—keeping an eye on them, telling them their favourite television programme is about to start and never getting bored with having to make repeated reminders to the forgetful. To that end, Engineered Arts aims to teach its robots to play board games, like chess. But only well enough so that they remain fallible, and can be beaten.

杰克逊先生坚信,制造人形机器人是为了执行人机互动任务。举例来说,只需稍加改进,阿梅卡就能充当老年人的陪护——照看他们,告诉他们喜欢的电视节目就要开播了,不厌其烦地提醒他们健忘的事情。为了实现这一目标,Engineered Arts公司打算培训机器人玩棋类游戏,例如下象棋。但只有一般水平,这样它们才会出错,人类才有胜算。

To interact successfully with people, Mr Jackson asserts, a robot needs a face. “The human face is the highest bandwidth communications tool we have,” he observes. “You can say more with an expression than you can with your voice.” Hence Ameca’s face, formed from an electronically animated latex skin, is very expressive.


Although the company, which has its origins in making animated figures for the entertainment industry, can construct highly realistic faces, Ameca’s phizog is designed deliberately to look how people might expect a robot from the world of science fiction to appear. It has a grey complexion, visible joints and no hair. It therefore avoids falling into the “uncanny valley”, an illusion that happens when an artificially created being shifts from looking clearly not human into something more real, but not quite real enough. At this point people feel disturbed by its appearance. Comfort levels rise again as similarity to a human becomes almost perfect.


Some roboticists do, however, seek such perfection. Besides assisting people, robots can also act as their avatar representatives. Ishiguro Hiroshi, director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University, in Japan, has built one in his own image. He recently unveiled another, which resembles Kono Taro, Japan’s digital minister. The idea is that people either speak through their avatar with their own voice, or through someone else’s voice modified to sound like them. Mr Kono’s avatar will, apparently, be used to stand in for the minister at public-relations functions.

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Though less humanlike, Ameca could work as an avatar, too. Its conversation is more compelling—a loquaciousness derived from an external ai program called a large language model, with which it interacts via Wi-Fi and the internet.


Engineered Arts is also working on hardware and software to allow the latest developments in computer vision to be incorporated quickly into its robots. And, as Mr Jackson readily admits, Ameca needs work in other areas, too. Asked if it can walk, the robot replies: “Unfortunately not, but I hope to soon. Until then I am bolted to the floor.” A set of experimental legs stands ready in a nearby corner.

Engineered Arts公司也在研发硬件和软件,旨在快速地将计算机视觉的最新研究成果应用于机器人。杰克逊先生坦言,阿梅卡还需要从事其他领域的工作。当被问及能否行走时,机器人回答:“很遗憾,我不能,但我希望很快能做到。在此之前,我会被固定在地面上”。旁边的角落里摆放着一副试验性的机械腿。

Different strokes


Different companies are coming from different directions in their approaches to making humanoid robots. Mr Jackson, who was born into a family of artists involved in making automatons, gravitated naturally towards producing modern versions of them for the likes of theme parks, museums and the film industry. These have steadily evolved in sophistication. Some work as interactive guides. Others are used as research platforms by universities. During the covid lockdown, when business dried up, the firm threw all of its resources at developing Ameca, its most advanced model yet.


Other developers, like Tesla, are able to organise far bigger efforts—but not always successfully, as the case of Honda, a Japanese carmaker, shows. At one point, Honda’s diminutive humanoid robot asimo (so named to honour Isaac Asimov, who wrote science-fiction stories about robots) was considered the world’s most advanced. The firm started work on this project in the 1980s, and although asimo could walk—albeit clumsily—interpret voice commands and move obxts, Honda shut the project down in 2018 to concentrate instead on more practical forms of robotics, such as mobility devices for the elderly.

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Some roboticists have turned a hobby into a business. Shadow Robot, in London, which makes one of the most dexterous humanlike robot hands available, traces its roots to hobbyists meeting in the attic of its founder’s home. Most outfits, however, have emerged from universities. One of the best known is Boston Dynamics, which began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Atlas, its Hulk-like humanoid, has become an internet video sensation—running, jumping and performing backflips. But Atlas is principally a research project, too expensive to put into production. The company does sell a walking robot, but it is a four-legged one called Spot, which resembles a dog.

有些机器人专家把爱好变成了生意。伦敦Shadow Robot公司始于爱好者去创始人的家中阁楼上聚会,该公司制造出目前最灵巧的人形机械手之一。但大多数公司是在高校里出现的,波士顿动力公司始于麻省理工学院,它制造的阿特拉斯机器人成了视频网红——能够奔跑、跳跃、后空翻。但阿特拉斯主要是个研发项目,投产的成本太高。该公司销售的是一种步行机器人,但这是一种名为Spot的四足机器人,看起来像一只狗。

One of a bipedal robot’s advantages is that it should be able to go wherever a person can. That includes navigating uneven surfaces and walking up and down steps. Digit, made by Agility Robotics of Corvallis, Oregon, is actually able to do this.

双足机器人的优势之一是能够去人类所能去的任何地方,包括应对凹凸不平的地面和上下台阶。美国俄勒冈州Agility Robotics of Corvallis公司制造的Digit机器人就能做到这些。
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Digit is based on Cassie, a walking torso developed at Oregon State University using machine-learning studies of human locomotion. In May, it set a record as the fastest robot to run 100 metres. (It took 24.7 seconds, some way behind Usain Bolt’s 9.6.)

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Unlike Cassie, Digit has a chest, arms and hands of a sort—though no fingers. In place of a head it has a lidar, an optical analogue of radar that builds up a three-dimensional model of the world around it using lasers. Digit is not designed to be humanoid, says Jonathan Hurst, Agility’s chief technology officer. It is, rather, a “human-centric” robot intended as a tool for people to use to achieve more things.


One of Digit’s first roles is likely to be in a distribution centre run by an online retailer or freight company. Some already use automated goods-handling, but usually in areas fenced off to keep people out, in order to avoid injuries. Elsewhere, tasks remain labour-intensive. By being designed to work safely alongside people, Digit could start changing this—for instance, by moving and stacking crates (see picture). It might then progress to unloading trucks and subsequently graduate to making home deliveries, carrying items from van to doorstep. Ultimately, the aim is to be able to instruct the robot by talking to it.


Agility plans to produce Digit in volume by 2024. It is working with several big, though unnamed, delivery outfits, on ways in which Digit could collaborate safely with people. If the robot’s sensors detect someone it pauses and then navigates around them. Nevertheless, says Dr Hurst, it will soon acquire a simplified face to help signal its intentions. An animated set of eyes, for instance, will look in a particular direction to indicate which way it is heading, and a glance at someone will show it has noticed them.


Do no harm


Such safety systems will be needed for robots to interact successfully with people. At present, their use is governed mainly by standard safety and product-liability rules. Some argue, however, that special robot-specific laws will be required to ensure they are operated safely. As every sci-fi buff knows, Asimov laid out a set of these eight decades ago. They are:


A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.


A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.


A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.


But, as every sci-fi buff also knows, Asimov’s storylines often revolve around these laws not quite working as planned.


About his Digits, Dr Hurst says, “My opinion is that they are very safe. But we need real statistics and a regulatory environment to prove this.”


For his part, Mr Musk said that Optimus would contain a device that could be used as an off switch if necessary. Although the robot itself would be connected to Wi-Fi, the switch would not, so that it was isolated to prevent remote interference.


As far as the Amecas’ safety is concerned, Mr Jackson is taking an engineering approach. He observes that one reason human limbs avoid injuring others is by being both firm and floppy at the same time. Unfortunately, the small, powerful actuators needed to emulate this in robots do not yet exist. He is working on that, though, for it will be of little use teaching an Ameca social graces if it then commits the faux pas of bashing into you.