Figure's humanoid robots are about to enter the workforce at BMW
Figure has signed its first commercial deal, and is sending its general-purpose humanoid robots off to start real-world work at BMW's manufacturing plant in South Carolina. Founder and CEO Brett Adcock talks us through this rubber-meets-road moment.
Emerging from stealth mode just 10 months ago, Figure has developed its robots at a frightening pace. The company had prototypes up and walking within a year of development, thanks to a highly experienced team – and at an impressive speed, too, compared with everything this side of the acrobatic Atlas bot from Boston Dynamics.
A little over a week ago, the company announced another milestone, releasing video of the Figure 01 robot autonomously making a coffee in response to a verbal command. Adcock called this a "ChatGPT moment" for the company, since the robot figured out how to use that coffee machine on its own after watching a bunch of video demonstrations.
And now, it's delivering on its promise to get the bots out there doing real, useful work ASAP. Under a freshly signed commercial agreement with BMW Manufacturing Co. LLC, Figure has started identifying initial use cases at BMW's Spartanburg plant, and has begun training the bots up for a staged deployment on site.
It's not the first time autonomous humanoids have gone to work alongside humans – Amazon, for example, announced in October that it would start testing the Digit humanoid, from Agility Robotics, as a "mobile manipulator" carrying bins and totes around in warehouse situations where there's not enough space for conveyor belts – and older facilities that haven't already been custom-designed with flat floors suitable for wheeled robots.
But it's of note 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 among the first, if not the first, deal of its kind.
"It's possible that there's real commercial deals out there that haven't been announced," Adcock tells us over a video call, "but all I've seen are test pilots and things. So yeah, this may be the first one, or certainly one of the first ones."
Why BMW? "We really wanted somebody in the car manufacturing side," says Adcock. "There's a lot of robotics experience embedded in the automakers, and they've done a lot of work with humanoids before. Like, Honda with ASIMO, Hyundai owns Boston Dynamics, Tesla with Optimus, Toyota's Robotics Institute, GM did some work to a while back. You go into a factory like BMW's, they have a ton of robotics experience – albeit focused on specific tasks rather than general-purpose."
"We met 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 solve further automation issues with more dextrous and mobile manipulation. We believe in that team and what they're doing, I think they're gonna be really good for us. We have full executive buy-in in Germany, obviously a good brand ... I think we can grow a lot of robots under that umbrella."
Training has already begun in Figure's labs for the first tasks the 01 will start attempting at BMW, although the two companies are yet to announce exactly what it'll be doing on the factory floor. Certainly, the 01 isn't going to be making coffees.
"We're looking at body shop work," he continues, "with sheet metal, and other warehouse logistics work. It's mobile, it'll need to touch things and move them around. We've picked our first use case internally, we know what it is and we're practicing on it, but I can't divulge it."
"We'll start with low quantities of robots," he explains, and we have certain milestones we need to hit. If we can hit them, we'll scale up pretty massively over time. But it's very milestone-based, we have to prove we can do useful work with them. Which makes sense, we have to make sure the robots do well."
One thing's for sure: Adcock plans to keep the world apprised of the humanoid's progress as it learns new abilities.
"Next week," he says, "we'll hopefully demonstrate [the robot's behavioral learning capabilities] in real application work. We're going to try to post [video] as soon as we have capabilities. Like the coffee video, we'll just put it online and try to keep building in public. That's my motto for this business, I want to keep the public aware. We're going to be super open over the coming years about what we're doing and be very frequent about it."
So the rubber is starting to hit the road for a category of machines many expect will eventually free humanity from the yoke of physical work altogether. Humanoids are the same shape as us, they can access the same spaces and use the same tools. Early models might move awkwardly and act slowly and ponderously, but as the AIs underpinning 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 exactly what the place of humans might be in a post-work society in which our labor and our intelligence have been rendered obsolete by robotics and AI. And that's certainly a discussion to be had. But we're now moving into the difficult implementation phase where such lofty ideas will need to be put aside as the tedious, difficult work begins of shepherding these nascent humanoids through the process of doing single tasks one at a time, making sure they're accurate, resilient and flexible enough to be relied on the way we rely on human employees.
My assumption is that this stage will be excruciating. I ask Adcock what's his sense on where humanoid robotics sits right now on the old Gartner Hype Cycle. Surely over the last 12 months we've reached that Peak of Inflated Expectations and we're due for a plunge into the Trough of Disillusionment?
"We're not even close to peaking the Hype Cycle," says Adcock. "We're just getting to lift-off. I think I can see three to five months ahead of you, and what's coming down the pipe in the next year is gonna make right now feel like a warm-up ... This space is gonna heat up, man, buckle up, this year's gonna be fun!"