2015 the year of Personal Robots?


Article by Michael Szollosy

Amidst all the talk about the Big Trends in tech for 2015 – driverless cars apparently on the horizon, and of course the VR revolution will arrive just in time for next Christmas – is talk of personal robotics: more than simple machines, these are robots that promise to organise our lives. Through the power of ‘emotional engines’ and other advances in Artificial Intelligence (some genuine, some less revolutionary than marketing agents would have us believe), these are robots that will become our companions, or perhaps even trustworthy friends.

The key, of course, to the up-take of any new technology – beyond the tech-enthusiasts that gobble up anything new and innovative (e.g. Glassholes) – is how useful a product will be to the wider consumer market.

The excitement over these personal robots, and perhaps certain problems, lie in our expectation of how ‘personal’ they can be.  According to their websites, JIBO, and this personal robot recently launched on Kickstarter, these robots can wake us up, remind us of our appointments and organise our offices, take pictures of us and watch over our homes. These functions, for most of us, though, are all more than adequately performed by existing technologies, such as our phones and wearables. Another, Pepper, declares that it can be instructed to stack coloured blocks, and is shown performing art-house techno music. We have to ask if the ‘value added’ – what personal robots can offer that these existing technologies do not – is really something that we want robots or AI to be doing for us. A personal stylist? Someone to let our children watch TV in bed? Are these functions we need or want fulfilled by a new machine?

These robots are also described as ‘companions’, but with such limited intelligence and matrix of responses, they aren’t exactly very… chummy.

The promise of convergence – an all-in-one tech solution – has a certain appeal. But your phone will fit in your pocket; your iPad in a bag slung over your shoulder. This generation of personal robots will need to be carried about from table top to table top. Or they can follow you about, but they’ll find it difficult to climb on the bus behind you.

From one promotional video, the poor robot seems fated to wander about after its master, looking like a dejected, Disneyfied darlek, desperate just to hang out with the gang. Rarely have robots looked more frightening than when a cartooned-faced princess insists that you wear the blue tie. If the worst did happen and she transformed into a HAL 9000 on wheels, careening madly around your living room and mumbling about what you should be eating for breakfast you could always take solace in the knowledge that you could make a quick escape upstairs.

The possibilities these robots offer for telepresence – the ability to be in one place and have a functional, material presence somewhere else – is an application with tremendous potential, particularly for industry and specialist functions (dangerous work, health-care, etc.) For many of these robots aimed at the mass-consumer market, however, the best that the marketing personnel seem to be able to imagine is a sort of very expensive tablet case, or a really big baby monitor.

There is undoubtedly an important role to play for such robots in the care of disabled or elderly. Robots like Budgee, or a smart-table that we saw at the recent launch of Sheffield Robotics, which could arrange itself around its user to perform a variety of functions (writing, eating, assisting with movement) look more promising. Rather than trying to create demand, these devices offer solutions to a particular set of existing problems. (For example, cleaning the grill of your oven.)

And, perhaps most importantly, these more task-specific robots don’t have faces. Because the anthropomorphisation of machines carries with it all sorts of complications.

First, simply put: we aren’t capable yet of creating robots with a personality that is compelling, or recognisable as a ‘personality’, to most people. This creates unrealistic expectations. And it is a problem because it helps fuel the fear of intelligent robots, and the feeling that the robopocalypse is just around the corner.

On a cultural level, we could say that the promise of such robots is ‘the stuff of science fiction’; though whether it is fiction or fact, we are still faced with some intriguing questions: what is it we are hoping to achieve by trying to create machines that are not only useful and intelligent, but are also emotionally engaging? Are we are expecting something beyond instrumentalisation? that is, something more than a tool for particular jobs?

Whether any of these robots live up to the promise and hype we’ve seen advertised remains to be seen. But, as with any technological innovation, until designers answer the question – what is this for? – such devices may struggle to succeed in the consumer market.

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