Do we need humanoid robots that look and move like us?

David Gregory-Kumar
Science, Environment & Rural Affairs Correspondent

Published
image captionOne of our robot friends enjoying a trip outside the lab

I want a robot butler as much as the next person, but the truth about robots is the ones that are really useful don't look like us at all.

In the past we've shown you motorised baskets on wheels that help out in a warehouse as well as a quick-moving sucker on a stick that packs a tray of chicken breasts to a set weight.

Clever bits of machinery that certainly excel at boring repetitive tasks... but that are perhaps not what we think of as robots.

But at the "Humanoids 2017" conference in Birmingham I was surrounded by robots that wouldn't look out of place in Star Trek or Doctor Who.

Proper robots with at least two arms and a head and a few with legs as well.

One or two were able to look me directly in the eye. I was surrounded by walking, talking, grasping robots all fresh from the laboratory.

Humanoid robots, in turns out, are very popular with scientists but not so much in the real world. So why is that?

Cutting-edge

Well, a humanoid robot is always going to be right at the cutting edge of technology.

At this conference one robot was standing at a table and stamping postcards presented by delegates.

There's so much going on here. First of all the robot is standing unaided, balancing and dealing with any unexpected forces.

Then it's picking up a stamp and pressing it into an ink pad with just the right amount of pressure before moving over to the postcard and stamping away in just the right place.

All this involves vision, learning and movement... it's not trivial. But that's why it's great in a laboratory because the scientists learn so much about the task.

image captionThis robot has a microphone and is ready to report

Once they've cracked the problems they can take all that innovation and distil it down into a more robust day-to-day robot.

A robot that probably doesn't look like its research relative in the lab.

My robot butler will never stand in my lounge pushing the vacuum about but I do have a small disc-shaped robot vacuum cleaner that's just as good.

Outside the laboratory

So the conference in Birmingham was a rare chance to meet really cool "proper" robots outside of the laboratory and actually interact with them.

These are the robots that will help scientists create the machines we will actually come across in the future helping out in our factories and warehouses even farms.

One other thing I learned about humanoid robots at the conference.

When they have nothing to do it's a bad idea to just stand perfectly still.

Either a robot moves unexpectedly and people are spooked or else people assume it's broken.

So instead, they have a sort of robot screensaver. Small motions like the flexing of fingers or the tilt of a head, just to remind you they are there.

Our robot future may not be quite what science fiction promised, but it's still very exciting.

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