Comment: The dawn of humanoid robotics

Agnes Wamagui, Robotics Knowledge Transfer Manager at Innovate UK Business Connect, discusses the latest developments in humanoid robotics and its future application in industrial sectors.

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Robotic technology has moved forward by leaps and bounds in the last few years but, despite that, the ‘humanoid robot’ still sounds like something out of a sci-fi film. Surely we’re still years away from anything so advanced, let alone anything that could find any kind of industrial application, right?

Well actually, we’re not as far out as you may think. In fact, the technology is accelerating at such a rate that we’re beginning to see, for the first time, humanoid robots being used in the real world.

If you’ve been on social media in the last few years, its likely you will have seen clips from some of the most standout examples of humanoid robots. Sophia from Hansen Robotics went viral a couple of years ago after it showcased its ability to not only have an AI-powered conversation, but for its expressive, if somewhat uncanny, human-like facial features. A similar story can be seen with Ameca from British company Engineered Arts, which is one of the world’s most advanced human-shaped robots.

You may have also seen Boston Dynamic’s humanoid robot, Atlas, which is capable of running, jumping over gaps, and even doing backflips off ledges.

These robots all demonstrate a unique strength and, over time, we will begin to see humanoid robots that combine these skills. Tesla’s recent debut of its latest humanoid robot, Optimus Gen 2, is a prime example of this happening already, a seemingly highly dexterous robot capable of performing tasks that were previously a significant challenge. Critics will, of course, cite that this technology is pointless if it doesn’t have any real-world application. However, we’re even seeing this technology now hitting the workshop floor.

This year marked a huge milestone for humanoid robotics, with BMW making a first-of-its-kind deal and employing a number of humanoid robots to join their manufacturing plant in South Carolina, USA. The automaker has cited that it has struggled historically to automate all its processes, with some functions still requiring agile and dexterous intervention that could prove dangerous for human workers.

This, of course, is significant and perhaps the first of many deals like this in the years to come. However, humanoid robots are firmly in the “early adopter” stage of commercialisation and they’ll need to overcome some big hurdles before we see wide adoption.

Investment – Inevitably, the technology is quite expensive, both in its cost and its risk, especially as it remains in its infancy. The mass production of this technology should help bring costs down, but confidence and demand are also needed to make humanoid robots a commercial reality, which will take time.

Technical limitations – While highly advanced, humanoid robots are not perfect. The technology is only just being rolled out outside of the lab. As such, its performance in the real world is still being tested.

Security & Privacy – We know from experience that new technologies sometimes come with privacy and security concerns, so naturally the way in which humanoid robots will acquire data, how it will be stored, and what it’ll be used for will be a challenge for the industry.

Stigma – There are sceptics for every new technology, and it’s not always unfounded.  However, with humanoid robots, we have about a century’s worth of fiction exploring their limitations and potential threats. This will have taken root in the public consciousness and will certainly cause concern. On top of this, humanoid robots are designed specifically do jobs that only humans could do. Whether this is to backfill jobs humans don’t actually want to do, or those that are inherently unsafe, this will inevitably be controversial. An enormous amount of confidence-building work needs to be done to introduce humanoid robots to the workplace successfully.

There is no doubt that humanoid robotics will eventually find a place in engineering and manufacturing, and it may happen sooner than we think. However, they will remain in the realms of the future until significant technical and societal challenges are overcome. That said, with so much progress in the last decade, I’m excited to see where humanoid technology can find new, exciting applications in the coming years. 

Agnes Wamagui is Robotics Knowledge Transfer Manager at Innovate UK Business Connect

To find out about Innovate UK Business Connect’s role in supporting the UK robotics industry, visit