The Delicate Art of Making Robots That Don’t Creep People Out
Agility Robotics created a robot that could walk up stairs and carry boxes. But the main complaint from customers? It didn’t have a face.
The robot Digit stands approximately five feet, four inches high, with a metallic torso the teal color of a hospital worker’s scrubs. It can walk up and down staircases and around corners on two legs, and lift, carry, and stack boxes up to 40 pounds with arms whose hinges evoke the broad shoulders of a swimmer.
Agility Robotics, Digit’s manufacturer, shipped roughly 30 of these robots earlier this year to industrial and academic clients. The robot is designed to labor alongside human workers in industrial spaces like warehouses and factories, and the Albany, Oregon-based company expected that the initial feedback would focus on Digit’s mobility and functionality.
It did not anticipate a swift early consensus that the robot gave people the creeps.
“We’ve unfortunately gone a little bit into the uncanny valley there, with something that people identify as being wrong,” said Agility co-founder and chief technology officer Jonathan Hurst, a professor of robotics at Oregon State University.
“We don’t need [a head] for functionality. But… it effectively is necessary for functionality if you consider humans working with it and accepting it as part of its necessary function.”
Digit is meant to navigate spaces originally constructed for human workers, and so its form follows that of the human body — at least, from the “shoulders” down. Rising above its torso like a human neck is a black cylinder that houses the robot’s lidar sensor. Above that, there’s nothing. Digit has no head. And if it’s going to work alongside people and not make them uncomfortable, Agility now believes it needs to have one.
“We don’t need [a head] for functionality,” Hurst said. “But… it effectively is necessary for functionality if you consider humans working with it and accepting it as part of its necessary function.”