IREx: Where Are the Humanoid Robots?

Once hailed as the future of robotics, humanoid robots were conspicuously absent from the International Robot Exhibition (IREx) in Tokyo last November. Only one booth still presented them as "the future," but without any practical uses. Apparently, some roboticists regard applications as part of "future work."


Humanoid robots for drilling holes and holding cases of nuts and bolts

Another booth, in the university area, had a humanoid secretary to greet their visitors. I was really scared, and only managed to take its picture after assuring myself that it was not a moving corpse, but only a practically unintelligible machine. With such a morbid "receptionist," I completely failed to pay attention to the other research on display at that booth!


Not your usual receptionist

One fresh look at humanoid robots was the cardboard robot, which does not intend to perform any task that is better done by humans. Instead, it is a cleverly-built structure made of layers of cardboard and servo motors, that functions as a mobile mannequin. Low cost is definitely one of its main features, and the fact that it is meant only to display clothes in shop windows allows it to be very lightweight.


Robotic mannequin

Finally, the humanoid that left the strongest impression was perhaps one that was supposed to play table tennis. It was modeled after an athletic human body, with well-defined muscles and even sunglasses!


Table tennis humanoid robot: motionless

Alas, in the four days of exhibition, I only saw the robot moving in the videos that the company was showing -- the robot moved quite violently to hit the ball with the paddle, which caused it to oscillate wildly, probably eliminating any chance of image processing with the mounted cameras to try to catch the next ball.

The fact that I was exhibiting another robot just across from this booth provided me with a vantage point to keep an eye on this bot. But on the stage it remained motionless, indifferent to the efforts of its exhibitors, who tried to get it to work. It was only in the last day that the robot finally moved, although in an unexpected way. It fell on the wooden stage with a loud thud, in front of many visitors, plunging like a big piece of ham.

During those four days, I could think of a few robotic mechanisms that might be able to play table tennis in a more reliable way, without the need to look like a human being. But maybe I'm just being too hard on these human-shaped bots, and some day one of them will prove me wrong ... in a table tennis match. What you think?

Photos: Paulo Debenest

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