Meet your new colleague: Apollo, the humanoid robot
Why it matters: Labor-saving robots with dexterous fingers and a human appearance are expected to reshape the workforce in various fields, from eldercare and food prep to manufacturing and heavy industry.
- The trick is to get them to walk without falling, hold a charge long enough to be useful, and manipulate things without fumbling.
- The brass ring? Housework — because who doesn't want a robot to do the dishes and the laundry?
- Apollo is 5 feet, 8 inches tall, weighs 160 pounds and can lift 55 pounds.(See a video of the bot in action.)
- "Science fiction has promised us these for a long time," Apptronik CEO Jeff Cardenas tells Axios
Driving the news: Apollo, which can run for four hours before its battery needs to be swapped, is one of several first-generation robots designed for live action in the workplace.
- "Initially, it's going to start working in the supply chain — doing basic material handling tasks, moving boxes and totes," Cardenas says.
- This version "has initial applications, but it's a software update away from a new feature or functionality," he adds. "Long term, really the sky's the limit in terms of what these types of systems will be able to do."
Where it stands: Apptronik — which won't name its customers yet — has only pumped out a handful of production prototypes, but says Apollo is suited for "mass manufacturability."
- "Right now we have two Apollos that are built, and we're building another four," Cardenas said. "These are the alpha units ... our engineering validation prototypes."
- The next step will be producing beta units — fewer than 100 — which will work outside the lab, Cardenas said. "From there, we move into full production, by the end of 2024."
Backstory: Apptronik, with 85 employees, came out of the Human Centered Robotics Lab at the University of Texas, and worked on NASA's first bipedal robot, Valkyrie.
- Other companies at or near Apptronik's stage of humanoid robot production include Figure, Agility Robotics and Sanctuary AI.
- Big names in the field include Boston Dynamics and Tesla.
🤖 What they're saying: Humanoid robots "could be economically viable in factory settings between 2025 to 2028, and in consumer applications between 2030 and 2035," per a Goldman Sachs Research report published last November.
- Goldman "estimates a $6 billion market (or more) in people-sized-and-shaped robots is achievable in the next 10 to 15 years."
- "Such a market would be able to fill 4% of the projected U.S. manufacturing labor shortage by 2030 and 2% of global elderly care demand by 2035."
Yes, but: No humanoid robots have been "successfully commercialized yet," as Goldman Sachs points out, and some of today's iterations "can work in only short one- or two-hour bursts before they need recharging."
Between the lines: The human form factor is important for various reasons — making us warm up to Apollo as a colleague, for instance — but also enormously challenging.
- Robots of this type need to have "physical intelligence — things like balancing, walking, hand-eye coordination," as well as "cognitive intelligence — reasoning, understanding the world, making decisions," Cardenas says.
- The physical design of Apollo is "critical to making people comfortable working around and with humanoid robots," Apptronik said in a press release.
- "Digital panels on Apollo's face and chest foster easy communication," while its "friendly, human-like countenance" is meant to evoke a "congenial face-to-face exchange with a favorite co-worker."
The bottom line: Non-humanoid robots are starting to prove their mettle as security guards, autonomous taxis, kitchen workers and delivery bots — but these are early days, and there are still lots of mishaps.
- No doubt we'll all grow more accustomed to more robots in our midst — even as we debate whether they're actually taking our jobs.