Giving AI a Body: Why Tech Giants Are Betting on “Embodied Intelligence”

Giving artificial intelligence a body has become the most fashionable thing in the technology world.

Figure has just received a massive $675 million round of financing from investors including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Discovery Ventures, Microsoft, Nvidia, Intel and Samsung. The company develops general-purpose robots that look and act like humans.

Compared with the “artificial intelligence” brain created by the neural network model, which can defeat the world champion of Go at the top and provide feedback on the delivery time of takeaways at the bottom, the machine body always lags far behind.

Even the rising star Figure, the first robot, Figure 01, looks like he just escaped from a nursing home. If he and the 81-year-old Biden go into the boxing ring, it’s hard to say who will win.

What exactly can the “embodied intelligence” that technology giants value do?

The star of tomorrow rises
Figure AI was founded in 2022 and is headquartered in Sunnyvale, California. Its main product is the Figure 01 universal robot. It looks a lot like Tesla’s humanoid robot “Optimus Prime”, with a reflective, featureless mask on its head. In other words, they both look a lot like Cobra Commander from Hasbro’s “G.I. Joe” action figures.

Compared with other cute “WALL-E” robots, “Cobra Commander” is still a lot more fashionable.

Figure 01 is 168 centimeters tall and weighs 60 kilograms. It can lift a 20 kilogram “payload”, walk at a speed of 1.2 meters/second, and can run for five hours on a single charge. As an upright bipedal humanoid robot, it can climb stairs and walk around, adapting to the environment in which humans live.

Nvidia, which has just been promoted to the top three in the US stock market, has recently released the slogan of betting on “embodied intelligence”. Not surprisingly, the giants share a “consensus”. Bezos’s “Discovery Investment” led Microsoft, Nvidia, Amazon, Intel and Samsung to invest $675 million in “real money” for Figure – $175 million more than the latter’s financing target, three months ago The United States only provides so much military aid to Ukraine.

There are three basis for the “consensus” of giant investment.

One is the labor shortage in most developed countries and regions. Figure’s official website writes that “there are more than 10 million unsafe or unpopular jobs in the United States alone” and “manual labor compensation accounts for 50% of global GDP, nearly 42 trillion US dollars per year.” Robots can significantly reduce the labor force. quantity and price.

Second, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence software, machines are expected to be more “smart.” Figure has signed a cooperation agreement with OpenAI to help Figure accelerate “commercial implementation” by using the latter’s large-scale multi-modal model to enhance the robot’s “language processing and reasoning” capabilities.

OpenAI originally had its own robotics team, which was disbanded in 2021 due to lack of training data. Later, it invested in the Norwegian robotics company 1X Technologies (formerly Halodi Robotics), with a valuation of approximately US$375 million. It is reported that OpenAI once considered acquiring Figure, but finally invested millions of dollars with Microsoft.

Third, aging care and space exploration are both mainstream goals in the technology circle and have won the “true intentions” of the giants. Figure regards this as its long-term mission and emphasizes that it does not consider military applications such as robots going to the battlefield. The focus is on doing things that humans don’t want to do, which will not cause public resentment and is in line with public needs.

Figure is currently valued at $2.6 billion.

The official website video shows the real effect of Figure 01. The robot took a plastic box from a high place and placed it on the conveyor belt. Pick up a small box of coffee capsules and put them into the coffee machine. It also took a few cautious steps, although some netizens said it “walks like Biden.”

Three ways to “be a human being”
There are roughly three types of humanoid robots: manufacturing, chatting/accompanying services, and “general-purpose” robots that can do anything.

Although Figure aims to build a general-purpose humanoid robot, its first product, Figure 01, is very down-to-earth – devoted to manufacturing, such as manufacturing, logistics, warehousing and retail.

The ones with the clearest business models are manufacturing robots that do dirty work.

On January 18, 2024, Figure AI signed an agreement with BMW. Its robots will be “deployed in phases” at BMW’s Spartanburg, South Carolina, manufacturing plant to shine on the automobile production line. BMW is no stranger to robotics, and its subsidiary IDEALworks won the 2021 Robot Innovation Award for its intelligent transportation robot STR.

Prior to this, Boston Dynamics was acquired by South Korea’s Hyundai. As a pioneer in the field of engineering robots, Boston Dynamics has been designing and manufacturing bionic machine bodies, including the robot dog Spot and the robot Atlas, which became popular on the Internet more than ten years ago. Suffering from no revenue, the company changed hands several times. Hyundai is considering “big mobility” and wants to combine wearable technology and robotics with Boston Dynamics’ capabilities.

Nvidia, which has just been promoted to the top three in the US stock market, has recently released the slogan of betting on “embodied intelligence”. Not surprisingly, the giants share a “consensus”.
Logistics robots have become popular in recent years. Agility Robotics’ Digit is also humanoid, with a head like “Wall-E” in the movie “Wall-E”. It can pick up the box and take it to another place. Amazon has been testing it in the warehouse. Sanctuary’s bipedal robot Phoenix can place goods, unload trucks and check out.

Robot “couriers” are usually very cute, and they don’t seek to be particularly human-like, so as not to scare people when they are delivered to the door in the middle of the night and get a few slaps.

Service industry robots, focusing on “human-computer interaction”, are actually just for chatting and escorting, and their commercial prospects are not very optimistic.

In the past few years, robots like Hanson Robotics’ Sophia have become very popular. Obviously, without the blessing of GPT, there would be no soul for Chat. Recently, Ameca of Engineerde Arts announced the use of the GPT model to ensure “good and thorough conversations.”

Honda’s Asimo was sadly retired in 2018. It has appeared on the American talk show Live with Kelly and Ryan. It can imitate human dancing, pour coffee from a glass cup into a paper cup, communicate with people in Japanese, Chinese and English, and can also take care of the elderly with limited mobility. Asimo was originally designed for Honda’s “future car”, its full name is Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, but it had no hope of commercialization and eventually left the market.

Fooled Turing?

In the field of general-purpose robots, Figure and Tesla’s Optimus are very ambitious. At least the former hopes to “cheat Turing.”

Tesla Robot will have samples in 2022, and its name hints at Musk’s ambitions. “Tesla is the largest robotics company,” Musk said, “because our cars are semi-sentient robots with wheels.” As long as the car’s autonomous driving function and neural network learning capabilities are extended, we can make Humanoid robots are coming.

The essence of the Tesla robot is an “Autobot” – Optimus Prime is the name of the leader of the “Autobots” in “Transformers”.

The first-generation Optimus Prime was 1.72 meters tall, weighed 56.7 kilograms, could carry 20 kilograms of weight, deadlifted 68 kilograms, and moved at a speed of 8 kilometers per hour. Musk assured viewers at the time that humans could absolutely control the robot — if necessary.

At the end of 2023, the second generation of Optimus Prime will appear. With the help of an end-to-end neural network, it has been able to accurately classify objects, maintain body balance, autonomously control hand and leg movements, and automatically recognize the color of building blocks. At the end of the video, it also “leisurely” demonstrates several yoga moves.

Figure founder Brett Adcock pointed out that their robot uses advanced electric motors to move more smoothly than the hydraulically operated Boston Dynamics Robot Atlas. “We hope to fool 90% of people in the walking Turing test,” he said.

Whether it’s Optimus Prime or Figure 01, even if we ignore the “space Turing test”, their trembling behavior is always suspicious: there is no sign that they are stronger than humans.

They are indeed no better than anyone.

In fact, the rapid progress of the “brain” of artificial intelligence and the backwardness of the “body” prove a truth that many people are unaware of or unwilling to admit: the advantage of human beings lies in the “body”, not the “brain”.

Generally, people find mental work more difficult and physical work easier. In fact, it’s just the other way around. It only took millions of years for humans to develop advanced cognitive functions, but it took longer for muscles and motor abilities to develop. We use our cognitive abilities for a short time, so we think it is “difficult”; we use our muscular abilities for a long time, and the skills have been “internalized”, so we think it is “easy”.

During the Cambrian Big Bang, just a few more photoreceptor cells were enough for one creature to dominate the crowd. Vertebrates rely more on the nerve conduction speed of their myelin sheaths to establish their evolutionary advantage and put invertebrates underfoot.

The rapid progress of the “brain” of artificial intelligence, while the “body” lags behind step by step, proves a truth that many people are unaware of or unwilling to admit: the advantage of human beings lies in the “body”, not the “brain”.
Looking at artificial intelligence from this point of view, the principle is similar. For machines, it is easier to imitate a “brain” that has a short evolution time, and it can even defeat the world Go champion; it is more difficult to make breakthroughs by learning a “body” that has an extremely long evolution time, and robots look like they just escaped from a nursing home.

The advantage of human beings over artificial intelligence is not subjective “smartness”, but passive “flexibility”.

Regarding the so-called “labor substitution” of artificial intelligence, low-end repetitive mental workers should be the first to worry, and only later will it be the manual workers’ turn. Many artificial intelligence companies dare not admit this. After all, robots that do not work as blue-collar workers and directly become white-collar workers are not “good” robots. It sounds politically incorrect.

In recent decades, academic circles like to discuss “body politics” and “biopolitics”. On the one hand, they return to Foucault to discuss the fall of subjectivity. On the other hand, they also go in the opposite direction. By returning to Marcuse, they publicize “Eros” to promote “civilization”.

As long as the body is there, human subjectivity is there.

When it comes to Figure driving investment in half of the tech world, the real highlight is the two sentences on the official website: “What if we had the ability to repair our supply chain? What if we had the ability to support emerging economies?” In the United States, this It is the greatest political correctness.

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