Axios What's Next
March 17, 2023
There's a new, well-funded effort afoot to build humanoid robots that could one day do the kinds of jobs many people no longer want, Jennifer reports today.
Today's newsletter is 1,132 words ... 4½ minutes.
1 big thing: Humanoid robots are coming
Human-shaped robots with dexterous hands will be staffing warehouses and retail stores, tending to the elderly and performing household chores within a decade or so, according to a Silicon Valley startup working toward that vision, Jennifer A. Kingson reports.
Why it matters: Demographic trends — such as a persistent labor shortage and the growing elder care crisis — make fully-functioning, AI-driven humanoid robots look tantalizingly appealing.
- Companies such as Amazon are reportedly worried about running out of warehouse workers, whose jobs are physically and mentally demanding with high attrition.
Driving the news: A heavy-hitting startup called Figure, which just emerged from stealth mode, is building a prototype of a humanoid robot that the company says will eventually be able to walk, climb stairs, open doors, use tools and lift boxes — perhaps even make dinner.
- The company is the brainchild of Brett Adcock, a tech entrepreneur who previously founded Archer Aviation (a "flying taxi" maker that went public) and Vettery (an online hiring marketplace that he and a partner sold for $100 million).
- He's assembled an all-star team of 40, including leading roboticists from Boston Dynamics and Tesla.
- They've moved into a 30,000-square-foot facility in Sunnyvale, California, where they plan to set up a mock warehouse to test their prototype.
- "We just got done in December with our full-scale humanoid," Adcock tells Axios. "We'll be walking that in the next 30 days."
Where it stands: The prototype — called Figure 01 — stands about 5'6" and weighs 130 pounds.
- It'll be fully electric, run for five hours on a charge and is intended for warehouse use.
- "We think we can get into commercial operation within a few years," Adcock tells Axios. "We should be able to do most jobs — physical labor jobs that humans don't want to do."
Yes, but: Humanoid robots are staggeringly difficult to build and engineer to perform reliably.
- There are a host of design challenges, from simple balance to replicating human movements.
- "We need to be able to push it and have it not fall down," says Adcock about Figure 01. (Boston Dynamics has plenty of robot blooper videos on YouTube.)
- From there, programming a robot to move boxes in a warehouse is a lot easier than, say, engineering it to cook a meal.
What they're saying: "We face high risk and extremely low chances of success," Adcock wrote in a mission statement.
- But he exuded optimism in an interview: "This stuff just wasn't possible 10 years ago — I think it's possible now."
Reality check: Engineering robots is expensive. Adcock says he is self-financing Figure: "I put in $10 million last year."
Zoom in: In a November report, Goldman Sachs estimated that "a $6 billion market (or more) in people-sized-and-shaped robots is achievable in the next 10 to 15 years."
- This 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."
The big picture: The modern quest to build a robot that looks and feels like a human began in earnest more than a decade ago, with Boston Dynamics' Atlas in the lead.
- Today, Atlas and Xiaomi's CyberOne tilt more toward research than commercial applications.
- Tesla's Optimus humanoid robot is likely to be Figure's chief competition.
- Another competitor: Agility Robotics, whose humanoid robot, Digit, is also aimed at warehouse work.
The bottom line: It will take decades for humanoid robots to be able to replicate the sophisticated things our bodies can do, but visionaries are hard at work trying to make it happen.
2. Robotaxis' big boost
Widespread availability of autonomous vehicles (AVs) could boost the U.S. economy by hundreds of billions of dollars by bringing more people with disabilities into the workforce, according to a new study, Joann Muller reports.
Why it matters: Transportation is a huge barrier for people with physical and developmental disabilities.
- Public transit services often fail to adequately meet their needs.
By the numbers: Only 21% of Americans with disabilities participated in the labor force in 2021, compared to 67% of those without disabilities.
- And the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 10% that year — twice that of able-bodied people.
Details: The study, by the National Disability Institute, claims to be the first to look at AVs' potential macroeconomic impact.
- If reliable, affordable self-driving cars were widely available, around 9.2 million more Americans would join the workforce, the researchers found.
- That includes 4.4 million direct jobs for people with a disability, plus many more indirect jobs.
- The federal government would see $120.7 billion in benefits, including $93 billion in additional tax revenues and a $28 billion reduction in spending on social safety net programs.
Of note: The study was commissioned by General Motors-owned Cruise, which is developing a robotaxi service and has a vested interest in seeing more AVs on the road.
3. FAA convenes air safety confab
Aviation officials and industry leaders gathered near Washington, D.C., Wednesday for wide-ranging discussions centered on recent headline-grabbing incidents across the country, Alex Fitzpatrick reports.
Why it matters: While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is ultimately responsible for aviation safety, it's up to pilots, air traffic controllers, airlines and other stakeholders to work together to prevent dangerous incidents.
Details: Participants focused on several themes, according to the FAA, including commercial operations, air traffic control, airport and ground operations, and recreational flying.
The intrigue: Concerns have emerged across the aviation world about relatively new pilots, controllers and others who were trained during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the skies were relatively calmer.
- Now that travel is ramping up again, the thinking goes, those newcomers are effectively learning how to deal with busier real-world conditions on the fly.
Yes, but: So far, there's little tangible proof that such a phenomenon is behind the latest string of alarming near-misses.
What's next: All eyes are now on Phil Washington — President Biden's pick to lead the FAA, which has been without a Senate-confirmed administrator since March 2022.
- Some Republicans have criticized Washington as unqualified for the job, in part because he lacks thorough aviation experience.
- However, he has support from industry groups ranging from past FAA administrators to major flight attendants and airline workers unions.
4. 🗺️ The ever-shrinking apartment
Apartment sizes are shrinking nationally, Axios' Sami Sparber and Kavya Beheraj report, a reversal after units got bigger early in the work-from-home era.
Driving the news: New apartments in 2022 measured 887 square feet on average, a 30-square-foot drop from a year earlier, per a new report from listing service RentCafe.
- That sharp decrease was fueled in part by more studios and one-bedroom apartments entering the market.
What we're watching: Apartments under construction.
- As the market keeps fluctuating post-pandemic, their size could signal whether the trend of less spacious rentals will stick.
Big thanks to What's Next copy editor Amy Stern.
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