Featured Article : OpenAI Now Exploring Humanoid Robots

19th April 2023

A humanoid robotics company (1X Technologies) has announced that it raised $2.5m Series A2 funding led by ChatGPT’s creators OpenAI to pursue producing androids/humanoid robots at commercial scale.

Funding 

The funding round to develop more androids was led by the OpenAI Startup Fund, with participation from Tiger Global and a consortium of Norway-based investors, including Sandwater, Alliance Ventures, and Skagerak Capital.

1X Technologies 

Norwegian company 1X Technologies (formerly Halodi Robotics) founded in 2014, makes androids capable of human-like movements and behaviours, and its newest android iteration ‘NEO’ is powered by artificial intelligence but takes the form of a human-like body, i.e. an upright bi-pedal android with arms and legs.

The company previously made the news for its ‘EVE’ android – a teleoperated humanoid robot which has a human shape with arms, bending legs and a head, yet moves on a wheeled platform. Like the newest ‘Neo’ robot, EVE can perform many human tasks with its arms, such as packing goods.

No Robot Butler Just Yet 

Those hoping to have an android robot butler in the near future thanks to the new funding round, however, will be disappointed as 1X Technologies mission and focus is to create robots with practical, real-world applications to augment labour globally.

Money To Scale-Up

As well as increasing its efforts in building the upcoming bipedal android model Neo, the new funding will enable 1X Technologies to scale-up manufacturing of its first commercially available android EVE in Norway and North America.

Android Robots For Automated Labour 

IX’s Brad Lightcap says that the company is “at the forefront of augmenting labour through the use of safe, advanced technologies in robotics,” and OpenAI’s COO and manager of the OpenAI Startup Fund also confirmed that the new androids will initially be focused on augmenting the labour force by saying “The OpenAI Startup Fund believes in the approach and impact that 1X can have on the future of work.” 

Necessary To Try Them Out In Real World Settings 

Bernt Øyvind Børnich CEO and founder of 1X Technologies has highlighted the need to get androids deployed in the real world to learn lessons that could improve their effectiveness saying: “Deploying our wheeled android EVE at an unprecedented commercial scale gives us a unique understanding of the challenges and opportunities the robotics community has yet to address. If androids are going to work in our world, they need to experience our world.” 

Plug A Labour Gap 

Arne Tonning, Partner, Alliance Venture (one of the companies involved in the funding round) has highlighted how androids could also serve a useful purpose in plugging a labour gap. For example, Tonning said on the 1X technologies website: “Demographic changes will cause a labour shortage, and androids could help fill the gap. Goldman Sachs predicts a $150 Billion US market potential in 2035. Solving the right use cases is key to success, and we believe 1X Technologies is constructing a winning alliance.” 

It is anticipated that humanoid robots may help fill this gap by augmenting the labour market with their ability to perform repetitive, dangerous tasks or tasks that require high precision.

Others 

1X Technologies are by no means the only company working on creating androids focused on augmenting the labour market. There are several companies working on humanoid robots designed to work in various industries. Examples include:

– Boston Dynamics. Known for their advanced robots, Boston Dynamics has developed humanoid robots like Atlas and Spot that are designed to perform various tasks, including industrial inspections, construction work, and search and rescue operations.

– SoftBank Robotics. SoftBank Robotics is a Japanese company that has developed humanoid robots like Pepper and NAO, which are designed to interact with humans and assist with tasks like customer service, education, and healthcare.

– Hanson Robotics. Hanson Robotics is a Hong Kong-based company that has developed humanoid robots like Sophia, which can understand and respond to human speech and facial expressions and is designed for use in applications like customer service, education, and entertainment.

– PAL Robotics. PAL Robotics is a Spanish company that has developed humanoid robots like REEM-C and TALOS, which are designed to work in industries like logistics, healthcare, and hospitality.

– Toyota Robotics. Toyota Robotics is a subsidiary of the Toyota Motor Corporation and it is working on developing humanoid robots like T-HR3, which can be remotely controlled by humans and is designed for use in applications like disaster response and home assistance.

Amazon and Tesla? 

Although Amazon and Tesla are not primarily known for developing humanoid robots, yet they have both invested in developing robotic technology for various purposes, particularly Amazon.

Amazon has developed a variety of robotic systems for use in their warehouses, including the Kiva robot, which transports shelves of goods to workers for order fulfilment. These robots are not humanoid in shape but they are designed to work alongside human workers in a collaborative manner, increasing efficiency and reducing the physical strain on human workers. Amazon already uses robot arms called ‘Robin’ and ‘Cardinal’ to re-direct boxed-up pre-delivery items around its warehouses and has also been testing its machine-learning ‘Sparrow’ robot arm that could handle 65 percent of its 100+ million diverse parcels. The Sparrow robot arm leverages the technologies of computer vision and artificial intelligence (AI) to help it detect, recognise, select, and handle a huge variety of different shapes and sizes of products prior to packaging, in the handling part of its business

Tesla, on the other hand, has developed robotic systems for use in their factories, including the TeslaBot, a humanoid robot that the company announced in 2021. The TeslaBot was intended to perform repetitive and dangerous tasks in factories, freeing up human workers to focus on more complex and creative work.

While Amazon and Tesla are not primarily focused on developing humanoid robots for a wide range of applications, they are both investing in developing robotic technology to increase efficiency and safety in their respective industries.

AI’s Game-Changing Abilities 

Although the game-changing success of generative AI chatbot technology such as that in ChatGPT has helped businesses and holds huge potential in combination with robotics, some think it’s time to put the brakes on and think about the consequences. For example, a recent open letter signed by more than 2600 influential people, including Elon Musk, called for 6-month moratorium on the training of AI systems more powerful than GPT-4.

Will A Robot Take Your Job? 

The potential impact of robots on employment is a hot topic for debate but while robots and automation can increase efficiency and productivity in certain industries, it is also true that they can replace some jobs that were previously done by humans. However, it’s important to note that robots are not a threat to all jobs, and that they are more likely to replace certain tasks within jobs rather than entire occupations. It’s also worth considering that robots and automation can create new jobs, both directly in the development, manufacturing, and maintenance of robots and their components, as well as indirectly in industries that benefit from increased efficiency and productivity.

In 2020, a World Economic Forum report estimated that by 2025, 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in labour division between humans and machines. The same report, however, predicted that 97 million new types of “jobs of the future” will open up as robots are used to take on the more mundane and repetitive tasks that they are more suited to than humans.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

Robotic automation in the workplace has been happening for many years and many companies recognise the value in automation that can perform repetitive tasks continuously and well, thereby bringing benefits like efficiency, safety, and 24-hour / 365 days a year working, reducing labour costs, and improving competitiveness.

As is usually the case in the tech world, it is the successful combination of different powerful technologies that brings about game-changing innovation, and the combination of AI, the power of which has been witnessed by all with ChatGPT, and robotics is exciting. Making robots that are ‘humanoid/android,’ however, feels like it’s one step closer to a science fiction future that’s been the stuff of films and dreams (nightmares?) for decades. In practical terms, a humanoid form is a design that is dextrous and the advantages in carrying out jobs is clear, although the worries about the advancement of AI could make the prospect of robots that are the most like humans to date a little creepy. That said, if the robots are affordable and can be shown to add real value in the workplace, there are likely to be many industries that could deploy them successfully. Although the current crop of robots is intended to augment the workforce, many human workers may be apprehensive that automation is coming for their jobs and may not yet be reassured that their introduction could create new types of jobs.