April 15, 2024
A.I

The humanoid robots in the figure are about to join the BMW workforce

Figure has signed its first commercial deal and is shipping its general-purpose humanoid robots to begin working in the real world at BMW’s manufacturing plant in South Carolina. Founder and CEO Brett Adcock talks to us about this moment where the rubber meets the road.

Figure, which came out of stealth mode just 10 months ago, has been developing its robots at a dizzying pace. The company had prototypes up and running within a year of development, thanks to a highly experienced team, and also at impressive speed, compared to anything this side of Boston Dynamics’ Atlas aerobatic robot.

A little over a week ago, the company announced another milestone by posting a video of the Figure 01 robot autonomously preparing a coffee in response to a verbal command. Adcock called this a “ChatGPT moment” for the company, as the robot figured out how to use that coffee machine on its own after watching a bunch of video demos.

Figure Status Update: AI Trained Coffee Demo

And now, it’s delivering on its promise to get bots doing real, useful work as soon as possible. Under a newly signed commercial agreement with BMW Manufacturing Co. LLC, Figure began identifying initial use cases at BMW’s Spartanburg plant and began training robots for a phased deployment at the site.

It’s not the first time autonomous humanoids have worked alongside humans: Amazon, for example, announced in October that it would begin testing Agility Robotics’ Digit humanoid as a “mobile manipulator” that transports containers and bags in warehouse situations where it doesn’t. There is enough space for conveyor belts and older facilities that have not yet been custom designed with flat floors suitable for wheeled robots.

But it’s worth noting here that Amazon is an investor in Agility, so it shares an interest in developing the Digit robot. Figure’s deal with BMW is purely commercial, and that could make it one of the first, if not the first, deal of its kind.

“There may be real commercial deals that haven’t been announced,” Adcock tells us during a video call, “but all I’ve seen are test pilots and stuff. So yeah, this may be the first one, or certainly one of the first.”

Useful work in the real world is Figure’s only goal

Figure

Why BMW? “We really wanted someone in the auto manufacturing sector,” Adcock says. “There is a lot of robotics experience built into automakers, and they have worked a lot with humanoids before. For example, Honda with ASIMO, Hyundai owns Boston Dynamics, Tesla with Optimus, the Toyota Robotics Institute, GM did some work for.” “You walk into a factory like BMW, they have a lot of experience in robotics, although they focus on specific tasks rather than general purposes.”

“We meet the [BMW] team about nine months ago,” he continues. “They’ve integrated a lot of robotics into that [Spartanburg] plant. They wanted us to help them solve other automation problems with more dexterous and mobile manipulation. We believe in that team and what they are doing, I think they will be really good for us. “We have full acceptance from executives in Germany, obviously a good brand… I think we can develop many robots under that umbrella.”

Figure 01 Dynamic walk

Training has already begun in Figure’s labs for the first tasks the 01 will begin performing at BMW, although the two companies have not yet announced exactly what it will do in the factory. Certainly, 01 is not going to prepare coffees.

“We’re thinking about body work,” he continues, “with sheet metal and other warehouse logistics work. It’s mobile, you’ll need to touch things and move them. We’ve chosen our first use case internally. We know what it is and we’re practicing with it. , but I can’t divulge it.”

“We’ll start with low numbers of robots,” he explains, and we have certain milestones we need to hit. If we can attack them, we will grow enormously over time. But it is largely based on milestones, we have to show that we can do useful work with them. Which makes sense, we have to make sure the robots do well.”

One thing is certain: Adcock plans to keep the world informed of the humanoid’s progress as he learns new abilities.

“Next week,” he says, “hopefully we’ll show [the robot’s behavioral learning capabilities] in real application work. we will try to publish as soon as we have capabilities. Like the coffee video, we will post it online and try to continue building it in public. That’s my motto for this business, I want to keep the public aware. “We will be very open in the coming years about what we are doing and we will be very frequent about it.”

General-purpose robots are designed with a humanoid shape so that they can directly take over physical tasks performed by humans, using the same tools and access methods.
General-purpose robots are designed with a humanoid shape so that they can directly take over physical tasks performed by humans, using the same tools and access methods.

Figure

So the rubber is starting to hit the road for a category of machines that many hope will eventually completely free humanity from the yoke of physical labor. Humanoids have the same shape as us, they can access the same spaces and use the same tools. Early models may move clumsily and act slowly and lumberingly, but as the AIs that underpin their ability to act in the world develop and the hardware goes through many iterations, they should be able to see, think, respond and act faster, better and stronger than we can.

We’ve spoken to Adcock in the past about what exactly the place of humans might be in a post-work society where our work and intelligence have been made obsolete by robotics and artificial intelligence. And that is certainly a discussion that needs to be had. But now we are entering the difficult implementation phase in which such lofty ideas will need to be set aside as the tedious and difficult work of guiding these nascent humanoids through the process of performing individual tasks, one at a time, begins. making sure they are okay. Precise, resilient and flexible enough to trust the way we trust human employees.

I suppose this stage will be unbearable. I ask Adcock what his take is on where humanoid robotics is right now in the old Gartner Hype cycle. Surely in the last 12 months we have reached that peak of inflated expectations and are about to fall into the abyss of disillusionment?

“We’re not even close to reaching the peak of the hype cycle,” Adcock says. “We’re just getting to liftoff. I think I can see three to five months ahead, and what’s coming up next year will make it feel like a warm-up right now… This space “It’s going to heat up, man, buckle up belt, this year will be fun!”

Source: Figure

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