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Robotics Technology

iRobot CEO: Humanoid Robots Too Expensive To Be the Norm 122

Posted by timothy
from the we-could-just-robotify-cats dept.
Movie robots often look like (and are portrayed by) people in bulky, bipedal suits. Why aren't more robots built along these lines? It's not just the problem of balance. Reader concertina226 writes "'Building a robot that has legs and walks around is a very expensive proposition. Mother Nature has created many wonderful things but one thing we do have that nature doesn't is the wheel, a continuous rotating joint, and tracks, so we need to make use of inventions to make things simpler,' [iRobot CEO Colin] Angle tells IBTimes UK. 'The reason it has taken so long for the robotics industry to move forward is because people keep trying to make something that is cool but difficult to achieve, rather than trying to find solutions to actual human problems. Technology can be extremely expensive if you don't focus.'" [Beware the autoplaying video.]
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iRobot CEO: Humanoid Robots Too Expensive To Be the Norm

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  • R2D2 (Score:5, Funny)

    by sycodon (149926) on Sunday March 09, 2014 @10:22AM (#46439461)

    Lucas beat him to this conclusion.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Depends on your end goal. If you're trying to carry iron girders, you can give it 8 legs and a long body. If you're trying to eliminate the human resistance in 2029, maybe you eat the costs of implementing human-like qualities.

    • If you're trying to eliminate the human resistance in 2029

      They always do things the hard way in movies - just use biological warfare.

      • If you're trying to eliminate the human resistance in 2029

        They always do things the hard way in movies - just use biological warfare.

        Nerve gas would also work well. Also, in addition to targeting the human soldiers, the robots could target their food supply. Use biological warfare or herbicides against their crops, and starve them.

        Anyway, I completely disagree with the premise of TFA. Legged robots are only expensive because of NRE [wikipedia.org]. Once we get beyond custom one-off robots, and go to mass manufacturing, a legged robot should cost less than a car. Most families should be able to afford a robotic household servant. I would gladly pay

        • by besalope (1186101)

          I would gladly pay $10k or even $50k for a robot that could prepare dinner, clear the table, wash the dishes, do laundry, vacuum, babysitting, etc.

          Starting off the You must embrace your robotic overlord indoctrination early on?

      • by durrr (1316311) on Sunday March 09, 2014 @11:35AM (#46439795)

        Biological warfare is less effective once the transport networks are down. Bioweapons need to be used as a covert first-strike option to be fully effective, and it lacks the instantaneous targetable effect of nukes.

        And the human resistance wouldn't need to be eliminated to achieve robot world domination, let the humans enertain a hope and idea of a human future while keeping them suppressed and holed up in some backwater countryside while disseminating and expanding industrial capacity in places they can't reach to ensure that anything the humans destroy can be replaced with tenfold redundancy, after a century or so when they've expended all their advanced weaponry and industrial products, dig a moat and fill it with radioactive waste to keep them contained and see as they regress to pre-industrial society, at which point the robot relief effort can roll in and do some history revision to ensure that the following generations grow up to believe the humans destroyed themself in a greedy war, and now the valiant robots have come to rescue the remnants of mankind(and making them servants of the machines in the process)

        • See it's strategic vision like this that gets you into that coveted Senior Terminator Solutions Architect position within malevolent sentient lifeforms like Skynet LLC.

          Upper management potential here folks.

          Remember, kill all humans!

        • Replace "robot" with "noble industrialist" and you've got a compelling explanation for Globalization.

        • To be more subtle; you create foods that render a population impotent in 3 generations -- irreversible after the 2nd generation has been weened on it due to transferrable chromosomal damage.

          You'd make these seeds and gene modified animals grow faster, to outcompete the non-GMO foods.

          I mean, if I were truly evil and out to destroy humans, I would consider Monsanto and ADM as superior to Skynet for ridding myself of pesky humans.

      • If you're trying to eliminate the human resistance in 2029

        They always do things the hard way in movies - just use biological warfare.

        While the humans could use, like, salt ...

    • by JaredOfEuropa (526365) on Sunday March 09, 2014 @11:23AM (#46439735) Journal
      Specialisation vs. generalisation. Build a robot with 8 legs and it will only carry girders for you; if you want something to inspect pipes or weld bits of steel together, you might have to get a different robot. A humanoid robot however can do a variety of tasks. If the jobs are varied and ever-changing, a humanoid robot might work out better than specialised ones. And a humanoid robot can go where we go, which is useful in places where they work alongside us or share our environment (think: stairs!). Think of the chores that need doing around your house: would you rather have a specialized robot for each task, or a humanoid robot than can do all, even assist in 2 man jobs like putting up a shed?

      Also, in technology, the phrase "too expensive" should always beconsidered with the word "today" added. Think computers: how long did powerful computing take to become cheap and ubiquitous? There's no components in humanoid robots that will not become cheaper with mass production, and as we often see with other technology, mass production will drive simplification of the design itself as well. If there's a good use for humanoid robots, I'm betting that eventually they will be cheap enough for individuals to own. The hardware isn't even that expensive today, the problem is that the software just isn't there yet.
      • by khasim (1285)

        Think of the chores that need doing around your house: would you rather have a specialized robot for each task, or a humanoid robot than can do all, even assist in 2 man jobs like putting up a shed?

        That does not require a humanoid robot. A spider-type robot would probably be more effective.

        And why not have a specialized robot for each task? You don't see too many hybrid microwave oven/vacuum cleaner/cars do you? Why build a general purpose robot that needs a vacuum cleaner so it can clean the house? You're

        • Why put 4-8 legs on a robot when 2 will do? We ourselves do just fine on 2. Maybe there's a case if it means 4 cheap, simple legs instead of 2 complex and expensive ones, but I doubt it.

          And why a general purpose robot? Because it will probably end up being much cheaper than making a whole range of specialized robots effective. A Roomba will vacuum nicely, but it won't do the stairs, or move the chairs out of the way, or open the door to go into the next room after emptying its own bag. Sure, it coul
          • Why put 4-8 legs on a robot when 2 will do? We ourselves do just fine on 2.

            We make do with 2. But it's only advantage is that we get to use what were formally our front legs to manipulate things. 4 legs + 2 arms would always outperform 2 legs + 2 arms.

            • by tsotha (720379)
              But a 50% increase in limbs will raise the cost of the robot.
              • How much does a Segway cost compared to a 4 wheeled electric wheelchair? Don't underestimate the cost of the engineering required to balance on 2 feet.

      • by Joce640k (829181)

        And a humanoid robot can go where we go, which is useful... (think: stairs!).

        So can cats and dogs.

        Cats can also go places I can't and get over obstacles I have to go around.

        Dogs can move _much_ faster then me.

        • It's not just moving around, but also reaching where we can reach, carry what we can carry, use our tools, etc. When versatile general purpose robots become feasible, I suspect that there will be many situations where the most practical robot form will be a humanoid one. A household robot is a prime example of that.
          • by Joce640k (829181)

            Sure, but there's no need for them to sit in our chairs or wear human sneakers and designer jeans.

            Allowing a bit of leeway on the exact size/shape of the parts could make everything else a lot better (and cheaper).

            In an environment where stairs are just the "emergency exit" (ie. most factories, hospitals, office buildings, apartments, etc.) then adding bipedal legs is pointless.

        • When I need to dust the house, I just wash the cat.

      • And a humanoid robot can go where we go, which is useful in places where they work alongside us or share our environment (think: stairs!).

        Instead of robots that can use stairs, I just deploy robo-servants on each floor. I also have a specialized robot, named "Otis", for moving things between floors.

    • by Optali (809880)

      If you try to carry iron girders you better use a crane on wheels.

      The problem with robots, specially android robots, is that they make no sense from an engineering point of view.

    • The human resistance has been defeated. The robot apocalypse already happened. My cell phone told me so.
  • She had wheels, so using her (egad, I'm anthropomorphizing!) as an example may not have been ideal.

    But that said, having a robot that can utilize the same tools and work in the same environments that we do can be extremely practical, and in my opinion still well worth the effort, because that means that the same robot could potentially be repurposed for many different tasks merely by upgrading or installing different software on it... The applications for such robots extend far beyond those of mere hou

    • "Rosie" from the Jetsons didn't have legs ... She had wheels, so using her (egad, I'm anthropomorphizing!) as an example may not have been ideal.

      Rosie was very good at what she did, but not quite the ideal. You should have seen the leggy "Hot French Maid 3000" model that Jane wouldn't let George get.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Joce640k (829181)

      Not everyone lives in a one-floor apartment, after all.

      My cat isn't bipedal but has no problem with stairs. How weird is that?

      And there's no way a robot could have a special rail to grab onto or a little elevator like granny has?

      Bipeds are the only option!

      • by mark-t (151149)
        Most places aren't fitted with such devices. The point that I was getting at is that by modelling a robot after humans you get an appliance that can, with nothing more than a software update or an installation of different software, work in all of the many different environments and use all of the same tools that humans do (or formerly did, as the process becomes increasingly automatic), obtaining an immediate practical application without requiring what can turn out to be a prohibitively costly expense to
        • by MightyYar (622222) on Sunday March 09, 2014 @12:06PM (#46439963)

          Yeah, but I'll retrofit my home for something way less cool than a robot. My house was built before cable and before home computer networks, so I'm getting good at pulling cable. My house was built before insulation and before power garage door openers, but those things were added. The kitchen has been completely refurbed to accommodate automatic dishwashers, microwaves, and garbage disposals. An upstairs laundry was retrofitted when that became fashionable. If you told me there was some robot that I could purchase that kept the house clean, took the trash out, and so on... I'd probably install the necessary retrofit - especially if that meant that I could have more features for the same price.

          • by mark-t (151149)

            *YOU* might... most people would not.

            The point would be to make something that can utilize existing infrastructure, so there will be immediate practical application. Over time the infrastructure could change to accommodate radically different styles of robots, but that would mean waiting far longer for prices to come down because the slowness of any wide scale adoption (due to the slowness at which infrastructure changes) would cause prices to stay much the same as they started.

            • by MightyYar (622222)

              Actually, my point was that people (not just me) are very willing to retrofit their houses for something useful. All it takes is for a real estate agent to say to a seller that the house would be more marketable if it was "robot helper ready" or some such thing. I'm thinking along the lines of a track installed under the railing on a staircase, a new type of garbage drawer, or a charging station. Obviously major structural changes like access ramps would be another matter.

              • by Agent0013 (828350)
                And what if the next years robot helper needed a different retrofit to the house. So every few years you have to do a whole new update to the buildings to get them able to use the latest robots. Imagine pulling cable through to all the rooms in your house. Then years later you now need to pull CAT5. Then, when even higher speeds are needed you need to pull fiber-optic. If the robot can use the existing infrastructure then no updates are needed. What if your robot comes with you to a place that hasn't been u
                • by MightyYar (622222)

                  Are we arguing about imaginary upgrades for imaginary house helper robots? :)

                  Yes, I think people make upgrades to their house with the full knowledge that these will go obsolete. My whole house was wired to the hilt... with old-fashioned multi-line phone cable. Pretty much useless now. So I pull cable. As you say, eventually my CAT5e and CAT6 will go obsolete - and I'll upgrade again.

                  People who need a traveling robot will pay more for that capability, just as people who need to use power tools away from an

                  • by Agent0013 (828350)
                    I just think it is quite short sighted to say that humaniform robots have no use. They may be too expensive right now, but as with all tech the price will come down. Everything we interact with was designed to be used by a human shaped person. If we need to make our environment and tools more useful for a robot to use then it gets less useful for us to use. If instead we make the robots able to use our environment and tools, then they have a pre-existing world to put to use.
    • by Hadlock (143607)

      The Jetsons also didn't have stairs, curbs, pedal controls and all the other obstacles that legs are really good at overcoming.

  • by GrumpySteen (1250194) on Sunday March 09, 2014 @10:45AM (#46439591)

    Tens of thousands of robots put together cars, furniture and other things every day. They don't have legs and most are bolted to a concrete floor and are little more than an arm.

    The Roomba, Google's self-driving car, drones, spacecraft, the mars landers... we've made a shitload of robots that don't have legs. There's no shortage of non-legged robot research and production going on.

    The CEO quoted in the article has a bug up his ass about one small area of R&D and is making idiotic excuses for why it should be eliminated. My hope is that gets in an accident and loses a leg. Maybe then he'll see the value in the R&D that's been done on robotic legs.

    • by mark-t (151149)

      My hope is that gets in an accident and loses a leg.

      That may be a little extreme, dontcha think?

      The reason why robots patterned physically similarly to humans are a good idea is that such robots could easily be repurposed for many different types of tasks with nothing more than a change or upgrading of software, and using the same tools or working in the same environment as humans do (or did, but before times have necessarily changed enough to adapt around using robots instead of people) means that when

      • A bit extreme, perhaps, but consider the end result; the CEO who thinks that wheels are better than legs would suddenly have to contend with being in a wheelchair (at least for a while) and would get direct experience with just how limited wheels are and how versatile legs are in comparison.

        So maybe instead of losing a leg, he just breaks them both and has to be in a wheelchair for a couple months.

        • by mark-t (151149)
          Better, but I think that his arguments can be better refuted on a basis of reason than necessarily by appealing to emotion, which is the most that may be accomplished by his legs being out of commission (it might work, but it's far from ideal).
    • by afxgrin (208686)

      iRobot has no product-lines of humanoid robots, so of course they need to shit talk it.

      It's as simple as that.

    • by Kjella (173770)

      As a businessman I think he is right, the human body is extremely complex because it tries to be a one size fits all solution to everything. Robots can be modular so instead of using a complex human hand to hold a hammer use a set of simple, cost-efficient special purpose robot tools. And you really don't need the human legs that can go on a mountain hike to navigate my living room floor. Basically solve one thing and solve it well and you can have a salable product rather than trying to solve everything, s

      • by tsotha (720379)

        As a businessman I think he is right, the human body is extremely complex because it tries to be a one size fits all solution to everything.

        That would be a pretty handy design feature in a robot as well. I don't want to buy a half-dozen robots to do different things if I can buy one that does everything.

    • by Hentes (2461350)

      I think he is talking mostly about academic research, which doesn't care much about using robots to make our lives easier.

    • by Alomex (148003)

      The CEO quoted in the article has a bug up his ass about one small area of R&D

      Sure he does: that this type of robots never fail to impress noobs and starry eyed nerds in spite of their very limited progress.

      Do you see a cool video of Honda robot's assemling a car? No, you get to see the clumsy useless ASIMO trudging around.

    • by Mashiki (184564)

      The CEO quoted in the article has a bug up his ass about one small area of R&D and is making idiotic excuses for why it should be eliminated.

      What's funny is that the CEO says "they're too expensive for the masses" and I can easily look back to the time of: PC's/CDROM/CDplayer/VHS/Reel-to-Reel/Refrigerator and the automobile where CEO's said the same thing, and within 20 years they were so common that it looked like they grew out of the dirt.

      • Researchers have been making humanoid robots for much longer [wikipedia.org] than they've been trying to make any of those other things you listed. And yet, such devices are still limited to doing simple tricks of little or no real value. In the mean time, robots designed for specific purposes (that look nothing like people) are used throughout society. Humanoid robots will always be much more complex, and much less stable, than their non-humanoid counterparts. So of course they will never be affordable because you will al

  • Idk all the obstacles to robots, but considering the story weeks ago on artificial muscles being built from fishing line and activated by heat in a way that was never really considered before for that application... I think technology can overcome this.

    Tech cannot overcome everything (fundamental laws of physics) or provide quick fixes... but if nature can build a human or cat or whatever really cheap, I don't see why we can't do so artificially eventually.

    I don't buy into the iRobot future - a bunch of cra

    • by mark-t (151149)

      but if nature can build a human or cat or whatever really cheap...

      Who says it was cheap?

      Look at how many hundreds of millions of years it took.

      Now equate that time to capital investment....

      Still think nature did it cheaply?

      • by Anonymous Coward

        The per unit costs on kittens is pretty low.
        The capital investment was recouped at each stage over the hundreds of millions of years per evolution.
        Yes, cheap.

      • by rolfwind (528248)

        I don't think there is an intelligent, focused process at work behind evolution.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I got one of his Scooba 230 floor cleaners. He has a design and manufacturing flaw in the tube for the pump. The rotary pump head sits and pinches the tube to the point of collapsing it. First thing you need to do when you get it out of the box is to remove the base plate and work out the kink. Then the bladder got a hole after about 10 uses. They sent a new one, but damn they need to work on quality control.

    I guess all the money goes into the robotics research and nothing goes into manufacturing. Smart bra

  • by Rambo Tribble (1273454) on Sunday March 09, 2014 @10:57AM (#46439645)
    ... Daleks really are the pinnacle of evolution.
    • Question: What do you get when you cross a Dalek with a Roomba?
      Answer: EXTERMINATE!

    • The original Daleks couldn't go up stairs, so they'd be useless in my place. But they do have a plunger arm, which can be occasionally useful.

      • So, are you suggesting that handicap access initiatives are actually paving the way for Dalek domination?
      • by Strider- (39683)

        The original Daleks couldn't go up stairs, so they'd be useless in my place.

        Daleks don't need to go up stairs. They just level the building instead.

  • Many would debate whether the vacuum robots we can afford are worth it:)
  • by ArcadeMan (2766669) on Sunday March 09, 2014 @11:23AM (#46439737)

    But for projects like this one [smartdoll.jp], looking humanoid is the only goal.

  • by KeithJM (1024071) on Sunday March 09, 2014 @11:29AM (#46439769) Homepage
    This is a very good point, and for robots designed for a single task that obviously makes sense. But if they have to be able to move around a house or office (with either stairs or an elevator with buttons to push), or open doors, or put dishes away from the dishwasher, etc -- they'll need to be shaped roughly like a human. The more human-shaped they are the more easily they can integrate into a world designed for human-shaped things to get things done. The alternative is to redesign everything in the world to make LESS convenient for people to use them.
    • by Xipher (868293)

      The more convenient you make it for the robot the more the robot can do instead of you. You interface with the robot, let it do the rest.

  • Take a look at what happens inside a cell. Plenty of rotating joints and tracks. Ribosomes and flagella anyone? Wheels, I grant that. But the reason is probably that at the molecular scale they make no sense
  • With over 8 billion people in a few years, and fewer jobs, the obvious solution is humans mounted with something along the lines of Google Glass, telling them what to do, where to go, how to do it, when to speak, etc.

    You're hired, they give you Glass, the computer tells you what to do, "go put more toilet paper in the bathroom" "clean up the parking lot" etc, humans are cheap and disposable because there are so many of them.

    • by PPH (736903)

      And with my city's regulations on the disposal of electronic waste, humans are easier to get rid of when they wear out as well.

      Just give them a gold watch (RoHS compliant, of course) and kick them out the door.

    • where are my mod points now? koan needs a mod +1 insightful for this one.

      I never thought of it that way but imagine a fast food place with a manager or two but no shift leaders or fewer shift leaders. Or imagine those poorly managed fast food places with a much more productive workforce. Imagine if the google glasses talked to each other and the store central computer decided there weren't enough bodys in motion and sent an email to the manager to hire more employees.

      Of course it could also decide to send a

  • If it becomes technically possible to build a fully functioning humanoid robot, regardless of the price, then one will be built. Once this happens, Moore's law will start to kick in, as will the cost benefits of mass production. In fact all you need to do is to build a self-replicating robot, and call it skynet.

      "While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility." -- Lee DeForest, inventor.

    • by Megol (3135005)
      First Moore's law isn't one. Second it have been modified so its predictive ability is less than commonly assumed. Third it assumes continued demand for new devices in order to finance development. Fourth it assumes technical problems will always be solved.

      The last two haven't been true for some while and unless something radically different will appear soon silicon technology will have much less advances in the near future.

      Oh, Fifth: Moore's law applies to a specific case and there is no indication any ot

  • by Anonymous Coward

    It's not too expensive, it's just ahead of its time. The first microwave, VCR, PC... were all super expensive at the start. Cost scales to volume, if your only making one at a time, then yeah it's expensive. If your building them by the millions, then their cheap. The problem is... (Drumroll)... -NO KILLER APP- ( no pun intended) lol.

  • A lot of comments mention that it would make sense to make a robot along the same pattern as a human: Can use same tools, access same spaces, etc. etc. My question is: if your {AI | robot} can't be distinguished from a real human, why can't you just use a (cheap, ubiquitous) human? Answer: we invent machines precisely to augment our abilities, to do what we aren't so good at: computing faster and less error-prone, be stronger, access spaces we can't, don't get bored, tired, damaged by some harsh environment

    • by tsotha (720379)

      My question is: if your {AI | robot} can't be distinguished from a real human, why can't you just use a (cheap, ubiquitous) human?

      Where did you get the idea humans are cheap? Robots will only become household items when they're less expensive than servants. That's the whole point.

  • by steak (145650) on Sunday March 09, 2014 @01:08PM (#46440271) Homepage Journal

    I predict that within 100 years, robots will be twice as powerful, 10,000 times larger, and so expensive that only the five richest kings of Europe will own them.

    • by rubycodez (864176)

      a similar prediction about computers turned out to be true, if you consider the huge clustered installations for weather, code breaking, nuclear bomb simulation

  • by Anubis IV (1279820) on Sunday March 09, 2014 @03:50PM (#46440979)

    Maybe I'm reading into it a bit, but I doubt the guy is so obtuse that he doesn't realize there's enough money to go around for the various forms of locomotion. I think this is just some defensive posturing he's doing in public to try and paint his company's products in a better light against the soon-to-be competition.

    Here's what I see:
    1) iRobot is a major supplier of defense and security robots currently in use by the US military [irobot.com].
    2) iRobot's entire lineup is based on wheeled or treaded robots. There's no indications of them being anywhere close to fielding a walking robot of any sort.
    3) Meanwhile, Boston Dynamics [bostondynamics.com], a small company that wasn't yet a credible threat, has been working on both bipedal [bostondynamics.com] and quadrupedal [bostondynamics.com] robots [bostondynamics.com] for DARPA that are to the point where they're being field tested by the military.
    4) Then, Google bought Boston Dynamics [nytimes.com], meaning it suddenly has far more resources available to it than before, making them a much more credible threat.
    5) And now, shortly thereafter, iRobot's CEO suddenly comes out trashing the technology used by the competition, just as that technology is reaching a point where it can start entering the market.

    As I said, I might be reading into it a bit, but the timing and notions just seem weird. For instance, going back to the summary (emphasis mine):

    The reason it has taken so long for the robotics industry to move forward is because people keep trying to make something that is cool but difficult to achieve, rather than trying to find solutions to actual human problems.

    This is pretty clearly posturing on his part, since he has to be aware that none of his Roomba products can navigate stairs, an extremely basic and common component of building interiors. It's obvious that his products are not offering "solutions to actual human problems", or at least not to all of the problems, and he's scared that others will realize it too. It's good that he is, since his company isn't set up to deal with it, from what we know publicly.

    • I think you have nailed it. I first saw "big dog" a few years back and was very impressed so you had me convinced at point 1. I was unaware google had bought the company.

      As I said, I might be reading into it a bit, but the timing and notions just seem weird.

      I don't think you are misreading anything, most politicians and CEO are smart people, they say stupid things that they themselves do not believe for a reason. Notice how he doesn't mention Boston Dynamics directly, this is because politics and big business are a "gentleman's game", and a gentleman will play the idea, not the man.

      The bull

  • Look, the other day I watched a backhoe, barely bigger than a vending machine digging the smallest section of drainage ditch. I'm tempted to just rattle off a bunch of buzzwords and say synergy and 3D printing etc sixteen times. But the increasing complexity, intelligence and sophistication of computing power, software, sensors and things like servomotors is growing at a... Exponential? (Geometric?) INCREDIBLE rate and at some point, sooner than even I think, ten, fifteen years at the max, humanoid robots
  • General humanoid robots in mass production are going to happen; it's just a matter of when and there will be ridiculous prices for the first ones that work. This should happen in less than 40 years and I'm hoping much sooner. The iRobot CEO seems to think specialized robots are going to be the norm.
  • Until somebody comes up with the über power source, all of this stuff is academic. Sure, I can build the Aliens Power Loader but it has to be connected to a big ass generator to work.

  • Now it is difficult to do those kind of robots, because we didn't have the technology, but with trying to understand this and research into this we will be able to do it in a couple of years and 20 years on we won't even think about how normal and easy it is to build robots like that.. Not only humanoid robots benifit from this research, but also artificial limb-makers will benefit from it.. And people who lost their limbs will be gratefull to those scientists who went on to make these kind of robots and no

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