ZURICH—Humanoid robots are being developed around the world to perform a variety of tasks, including assembly. According to a recent study conducted at ETH Zurich, many of these robots have better components than humans, but they are still not capable of achieving as much. However, robots are catching up in the man vs. machine race.

Robert Riener, Ph.D., a professor of sensory-motor systems, compared 27 humanoid robots with humans. He only focused on machines that have two or four legs, plus arms and hands that can extend to pick up objects.

Riener compared the sensory components of machines and humans, such as microphones with ears, cameras with eyes or drive systems with muscles, and discovered that the technical components always fare better in terms of key sensory-motor properties.

“[However], if we consider the activities that humans and machines are asked to carry out, humans are generally superior to robots,” says Riener. “Although humanoid robots are also able to walk and run, if we set walking or running speed in relation to body dimensions, weight or energy consumption, most robots are no longer able to keep pace. Humans also significantly outperform robots in terms of endurance vs. operating time.

“Robots benefit for certain functions from their precision,” adds Riener. “For example, when balancing on one leg, robots can easily stiffen their joints, while humans tend to wobble a bit, which costs considerably more energy. Robots can also precisely recognize their joint angles and repeat movements very accurately.”

But, the results are more mixed for another movement function—picking up objects. While humanoid robots can pick up objects extremely quickly, they are not yet able to outdo humans when it comes to difficult hand movements and the manipulative skills of our fingers. Another weakness of robots emerges with regard to various movements such as swimming, crawling and jumping, as they are only able to perform some of these movements.

By contrast, most humans are easily capable of performing and combining several of these movements. According to Riener, playing soccer is a good example of this. He says machines are still a long way from dribbling, heading or analyzing the strategy of other players.

However, Riener insists that the latest generation of humanoid robots are not a gimmick. “The progress made by robotics in recent years is incredible,” he points out. “We wish to have robots around us so that they can help us with difficult or dangerous tasks.

“But, our manmade environments are very complex, and it’s therefore not so easy for robots to function here autonomously and without error,” says Riener. “Nevertheless, I’m confident that with the powerful technical components that are available, we will soon be able to construct more intelligent robots that are capable of interacting with us humans better.”