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A global scramble to make humanoid robots is gearing up to be the 21st century's space race

Joshua Zitser,Jyoti Mann   

A global scramble to make humanoid robots is gearing up to be the 21st century's space race
  • Humanoid robots are symbols of power and technological capability, a geopolitics expert says.
  • China and the US are going head-to-head `to mass produce them, like a 21st-century space race.

The space race, an epic showdown between the US and the Soviet Union, epitomized the quest for scientific dominance and the battle for geopolitical supremacy in the 20th century.

It conjured up legendary imagery of intercontinental missiles piercing the skies, animals being launched into the earth's orbit, and Neil Armstrong's historic moonwalk.

An incident earlier this month involving a Saudi humanoid robot inappropriately touching a female reporter might not at first seem even remotely connected.

But the incident inadvertently propelled Saudi Arabia's robotic endeavors into the international spotlight, underscoring how nations around the world are jockeying to make strides in developing functional humanoid robots.

Saudi Arabia, for one, is investing heavily.

"We built a huge building at the heart of Riyadh, we hired more than 70 engineers," Elie Metri, the CEO of QSS Robotics, which made the robot and has the Saudi government's backing, told BI.

Muhammad, the robot with the wandering hand, was showcased at DeepFest, an AI conference where some of Saudi Arabia's more than 2,000 robotics companies sought to showcase the kingdom's technological prowess.

Similar projects are emerging elsewhere, from India to Nigeria, as nations vie for leadership in this burgeoning industry.

Humanoids are visual representations of breakthroughs in AI

In Italy, the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia is working on iCub, a research-grade humanoid robot.

According to Giorgio Metta, the institute's scientific director, their primary objective is knowledge-based: to investigate whether "machine learning and AI require a physical embodiment to develop a comprehensive understanding of the world."

But Metta also acknowledges the escalating global competition to showcase innovational might, particularly in light of AI's growing economic value.

He told BI that human-like robots are particularly effective in demonstrating progress because they offer a visual and easy-to-understand representation of advancements.

"It's very easy to show that your technology is good because you see it, and there's not much to explain," he said. "If you show a computer a program, you get an answer … no matter how impressive it can be, it's not as visible as a robot."

Despite much of their work being collaborative, particularly with others in the European Union, Metta said he has been advised to exercise caution when working with one major global player in humanoid robotics: China.

"We are asked to be more careful," he said of the additional scrutiny.

It's "unfortunate" that scientists are being told to consider the sensitivities of the geopolitical situation during their research, he added.

China wants to take the lead

When it comes to humanoid robots, China is vying for the top spot, so it's no wonder other nations are getting nervous.

The country plans to mass produce advanced-level humanoids by 2025, according to a blueprint document published by its Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in October.

Fourier Intelligence, headquartered in Shanghai, told BI that it expects to have up to 1,000 units ready for delivery this year.

CEO Zen Koh said: "China is a formidable competitor in the quest to establish dominance as a leading market force for humanoid robots."

Koh explained that many factors have contributed to China's prominence, including substantial investment in research and development, namely in AI and robotics, which he says has already given the country a leg up.

"The vast magnitude of the market offers an unmatched chance to test, improve, and expand the uses of humanoid robots," he said. "This could facilitate quick, frequent updates and enhancements, giving Chinese companies a competitive edge."

The US also wants dominance

Competing with Chinese ambitions, Agility Robotics in the US says it will produce "hundreds" of its Digit robots in 2025. The company is building a factory in Oregon that's set to open later this year.

Agility CEO Peggy Johnson told BI: "We'll get to the hundreds in 2025 and then ramp up capacity to thousands in the years following that."

Johnson said it's well-positioned to engage customers and ramp up production and "welcomes" the competition. Amazon is testing its robots in its warehouses to help automate some functions.

Several other key players in the US have also been flexing their muscles.

This includes the $2.6 billion firm Figure AI, which recently signed an agreement with OpenAI to "develop next-generation AI models" for its robots.

The company also inked a deal with BMW to try out its robots in its manufacturing process.

Texas-based Apptronik, meanwhile, signed a partnership with Mercedes to test out how its robot Apollo can help in the production assembly line.

Tesla has its own humanoid ambitions and has previously said it wants to start selling its Optimus robot by 2027.

High stakes

In today's geopolitical landscape, Julian Mueller-Kaler, director of the Strategic Foresight Hub at the Stimson Center, said that "high technology has come to define high politics," with humanoid robots and AI representing the apex of technological development and serving as symbols of power.

The US, he said, is "defining national security through the prism of supremacy, not just in military terms and political terms, but also in economic and technological terms."

The US is strategically investing in these cutting-edge technologies as part of its bid for supremacy, he said, as well as employing other measures to impede China's growth in the field.

Over the last couple of years, the US has been implementing export controls on semiconductors to China to limit the country's high-tech capabilities.

But China, he said, has stepped up to the challenge: US sanctions supercharged China's chipmaking industry, with the majority of the fastest-growing chip firms in the world now being Chinese, according to TIME.

"They know it takes decades to build a ship fleet or aircraft carrier," Mueller-Kaler said. "The high-tech sector is where the Chinese think they have a chance to catch up."

Humanoids are the peak of a 'hype cycle'

Beijing announced last August that it was establishing a $1.39 billion fund to develop a hub for the humanoid robotics industry.

At the time, the city was already home to 100 robotics enterprises.

But Li Boyang, president of EX Robots, a humanoid robot company based in China's Liaoning Province, told CMG that China faces challenges in getting robots out of laboratories and into mass production.

Boston Dynamics agrees. Deploying robots at scale is "an incredibly difficult challenge," a representative told BI.

While obstacles to mass adoption of the technology exist, the potential rewards are substantial.

The mass production of humanoids could increase a nation's perceived power by increasing its workforce and population, Engineered Arts CEO Will Jackson told BI.

"If you could manufacture your population, suddenly you've got all of these kinds of digital citizens, or you can raise the importance of your country. They don't complain, go on strike and don't ask for workers rights," he said.

But Jackson warned that we're at the peak of what management consultant firm Gartner calls a "hype cycle," characterized by five phases: technology trigger, the peak of inflation expectations, the trough of disillusionment, the slope of enlightenment, and the plateau of productivity.

Humanoids are in the inflated expectations stage of the cycle, according to Jackson, with lots of talk on what the technology could do.

"They are not deployed," he said. "It's not a technology that's actually being used. Most of the humanoid robot companies out there now haven't ever even shipped the robot. There's a lot of optimism that is probably not very well founded."

Even so, the industry is expected to be boosted by Nvidia's recently unveiled Project GR00T, according to Jackson and Agility Robotics' CTO Melonee Wise.

It could help the sector reach a point of inflection by building a general-purpose foundation model for humanoid robots, they said, which would help them learn from past interactions and perform everyday tasks.

Saudi Arabia won't give up

While the competition to unleash humanoid robots on the world looks like a two-horse race between the US and China, Saudi Arabia refuses to be sidelined.

Metri, of QSS, said: "We have all the capabilities, we have the brains, we have the resources, we have a very huge market. Saudi Arabia today is competing with Europe, it's competing with the US. It's between the biggest markets globally."

The Saudi market, fueled by significant investments, is projected to have revenues nearing $120 million this year, according to Statista. The markets in China and the US have already surpassed the billion-dollar mark.

But Metri remains undeterred by the global competition: "Why are we doing this from Saudi Arabia? Because why not?"

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