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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Are domestic robots the way of the future? 

Tech companies are betting the market for automated domestics will soon boom

Aibo is cute but doesn't do anything. AFP
Aibo is cute but doesn't do anything. AFP

Every year, the question is dangled of whether domestic robots are finally about to relieve us from household drudgery. This speculation has been going on for decades but it has become particularly intense in the past few years. We haven’t yet chosen to embrace them, and that’s not for want of scientific effort.

Domestic robots have been a sci-fi ambition ever since M L Campbell’s short story The Automatic Maid-Of-All-Work was published in 1893; humans, commanding machines to do tedious, repetitive tasks in the knowledge that they won’t get annoyed with us. Evidence of a ­robotic home edging ever closer was on display at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) ­technology show in Las Vegas this month; as many as two dozen models of robot were there to show off their talents – and, in some cases, their stubborn unwillingness to do what they were told.

From Mitsubishi’s Wakamaru to Honda’s ASIMO, there have been a number of attempts to get the public chummy with robots over the past 20 years, but while we continue to be enchanted with them in theory, they’ve been noticeably absent in our homes. That’s partly because of the eye-watering expense – compliant domestic servitude doesn’t come cheap – but also because of inherent difficulties in bringing man and machine together.

A few years back, Microsoft’s Greg Shirakyan outlined three problems that still hold true today: our domestic environments are designed to be interacted with by humans rather than machines, which puts robots at an immediate disadvantage; the robot’s lack of social intelligence (which can theoretically be overcome but it’s still some way away) and, lastly, the absence of a strong idea of what a domestic robot should actually look like.

“The idea that a humanoid robot with arms would push a vacuum cleaner is an image that has set many expectations and, in some ways, has set back the industry,” said Colin Angle, the chief executive of robotics company iRobot, back in 2011.

Nevertheless, one of the two big robotic head-turners at CES 2018 was Aeolus, a robot that looks disconcertingly similar to Rosie, the domestic robot in TV cartoon The Jetsons, and boasts the ability to use a vacuum cleaner as well as “picking up clutter and locating lost items”. Some journalists expressed delight at Aeolus but it was hard to know whether they thought it had genuine value, or they merely appreciated its ­similarity to a cartoon vision of the future.

While the technology behind Aeolus was impressive (for example, the ability to recognise faces and remember where objects belong) company representatives were cagey about the retail price, preferring to use the vague phrase “as much as a family trip overseas”.

Across CES, you could detect a compulsion among designers to make their robots cute, in the hope that the public might let them into the home. The most successful example was Sony’s Aibo, a cute puppy dog that elicited sighs of appreciation from even the most cynical observers. Aibo’s story is a long one.

It was launched in the late 1990s, and withdrawn in 2006 as robotics took a back seat in the company’s priorities. But Aibo is back, and, as you’d expect after more than decade of improvements in robotic technology, it’s more lifelike, more prone to adorable behaviour, and more likely to sell a few thousand units at US$2,000 (Dh7,340) a throw.

Aibo performs no function other than making people go wow or aahh but other CES robots were aiming for function as well as form. Buddy boasted a welcoming appearance – smiling face and blue eyes – along with the ability to play games, spot intruders and control your smart home (assuming, of course, that you have one). You’d never mistake Buddy for a human but his smile was key to his appeal. Honda’s grimly named 3E-A18 was another beaming presence – indeed, its whole purpose is to offer emotional engagement and comfort.

Sophia, by Hanson Robotics, was less about pleasantries and more about realistic skin – skin so lifelike that she’s even appeared on the cover of Elle magazine in Brazil. But is the creation of human-like robots just innovation for innovation’s sake? Do robots have to look like us to do the jobs we want them to do?

At New York State’s Cornell University, in 2016, scientists attempted to balance our need to be able to relate ­emotionally to robots with making them genuinely useful. Their thinking was informed by surveys that indicated only a small number of people wanted a robot as a friend, and preferred it to be either a “butler-like” assistant or merely an appliance.

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The robot they came up with at Cornell was Vyo, described as “engaging, unobtrusive, respectful and reassuring”. Some of Vyo’s principles could be found in robots at CES; Kuri, a security bot, was like a chess pawn with a couple of holes for eyes. But some designers dispensed with human facial features ­altogether, aiming instead to forge a connection by ­mimicing human movement. These included the ElliQ, designed to appeal to the elderly and looking more like a table lamp, and Jibo, billed as a social robot, looks like an electric fan and promises to “crack a joke” while telling you the weather or taking a photo.

Robots can be perfect showcases for new technology, so it wasn’t surprising to see so many at CES. But many of them were closely guarded and rarely allowed to interact independently with visitors, lest they display flaws and shatter our illusions. That danger was made abundantly clear by LG’s David VanderWaal, who, under the glare of the stage lights, attempted to demonstrate the humble obedience of its Hub Robot, Cloi (pronounced Chloe) by asking it questions about kitchen appliances. Cloi remained stubbornly silent, prompting embarrassment, discomfort and a realisation that this year may not, after all, be the one where we finally welcome our apron-toting, mop-wielding robot overlords through our front door.