Why Home Robots Must Continue to Evolve
Robots are entering household use, but could single-purpose robots actually create more work for users?
The “Robots Come Home” session examined expectations and obstacles facing social robots. The half-day Robotics Conference at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show was well attended, as more than 200 people filled a room at the Sands Expo in Las Vegas.
Maryanna Saenko, an analyst at Lux Research Inc. and head of its autonomous systems 2.0 practice, kicked things off with a review of the recent developments in the personal robotics market. Saenko briefly recapped how science fiction has shaped popular conceptions of robots, from Rurel Capek’s indentured servants and Isaac Asimov’s helpers of humanity guided by laws to The Jetson’s Rosie the Robot. Even in 2016, people are still asking, “Where’s Rosie?”
Despite developments in artificial intelligence, navigation, and controls, the current hardware “is far from that reality,” Saenko said. “But we are starting to see pieces of Rosie, and they could come together.”
Watch the complete session delivered by Saenko and colleague Mark Bünger below. Here are the slides from their presentation (PDF).
Saenko divided today’s personal robots into three types: companion, minion, and dashboard.
Humans seek robot companions
Companion systems such as Aldebaran’s Nao and Pepper interact vocally with humans and are “still in their infancy,” according to Saenko. “Pepper lacks the ability to perform basic house chores and is essentially intended for entertainment.”
“It’s a fascinating and impressive piece of technology, but it’s not Rosie,” she said, mentioning Rosie’s personality and awareness of family preferences.
SoftBank Group’s social robot has sold out of 1,000 units in minutes for each month that it has been available, Saenko said, “but at $3,000 apiece, who are the real clients?” She suggested that most of them have been researchers and shops rather than households.
“I don’t want one in my house, and you shouldn’t either,” Saenko asserted. “It’s a cute toy.”
Companion robots should focus on responding to user preferences, said Saenko. “Paro, Aldebaran, and Pleo—all of these companies’ robots have shown that they can add valuable interactive experiences with, say, autistic children and the elderly.”
“Why are we so focused on companion robots being our best friends? Saenko said. “Maybe the point of companionship in robotics is not to create best friends but to create systems that understand us on a similarly innate level.”
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Saenko told the audience about how, during her first day at CES, she called a friend but was indecisive and cranky. The friend guessed that her blood sugar was probably low and recommended that she get some food.
“Can social robots do something similar and know us well enough to help us fix such a problem?” she asked.
Minions serve single purposes
Minion systems tend to be single-purpose tools. This market was once dominated by iRobot, but cheaper Chinese entries have recently proliferated.
“Since the advent of the robotic vacuum, single-purpose robots have dominated the consumer robotics market because of technical challenges [involved in developing multipurpose robots],” Saenko said.
“The robot vacuum market is the most crowded of the home-automation tools, with few differentiating factors between competing systems,” Saenko said. “All systems are struggling with energy storage and navigational limitations.”
Saenko referenced a variety of robot cleaners, which she called the “melon ballers of the world.” She added, “How many one-purpose tools are you willing to put in your house?”
“Consumer robots have gone the way of kitchen utensils, becoming more and more specialized to the point of absurdity, even as other technology moves toward simplicity,” Saenko said. “The goal is actually to interact with the least amount of stuff for the greatest value.”