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Humanoid tech: the long road to commercialization

From science fiction novels to Hollywood blockbusters, robots with human-like features, intelligence, and physical dexterity have long captured the collective imagination. The broad field of humanoid technology has risen to the challenge, evolving over several decades with an array of players developing everything from full humanoid robots to humanoid-related technologies. Although there remains an expectation gap in the ability of robots to mimic human kinesthetics and mental states while interacting fluidly in social settings, frontrunners like Hanson Robotics and Boston Dynamics have steadily pushed the envelope.
Hanson’s most prolific social robot Sophia, for instance, is modeled with human-like features and skin. It is equipped with speech recognition and intelligence software to enable facial expressions, human gestures, and simple conversation. Sophia is intended for entertainment and educational purposes, having made numerous public appearances and participated in interviews. Boston Dynamics’ somersaulting humanoid robot Atlas is designed for endurance and function, with compliant joints for human-like kinesthetics in support of vital applications such as disaster response. Sophia and Atlas showcase the possibilities in terms of form, aesthetics, functionality, and end-uses in humanoid robotics.
Due to its complex, costly, and interrelated nature, corporate incumbents and research institutions have long collaborated to lead the development of the industry, backed by government investment, research grants, and corporate innovation budgets. These players have often focused on humanoids as research platforms rather than purely commercial ventures. Recently, however, startup activity has gradually picked up on the back of decades of incremental achievements in actuation, advancements in research, and the rise of open-source robotics software—the roll-out of 5G and edge AI chips representing a tipping point. The push for commercialization has also been driven by demand for professional service robots in healthcare, education, and hospitality; a rise in global natural disasters; and Covid-19. The long-term outlook for this space will hinge on players successfully commercializing technologies amidst a global shortage of talent while responding to ethical and safety concerns in human-robot interactions, among others.

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