Not too long ago, after exploring the world of automation in San Francisco, California, I took some time to wax nostalgic on my first interaction with a robot.
If I remember correctly, I was about 12 years old. And this particular robot, I recall, conversed with me almost like any human would, asking me about what I had for lunch and complimenting my earrings.
That interaction, it turned out, would lay the groundwork for many years to come of studying, listening to, and speaking with various robots.
One of the best places to do that is CES, where the one of the largest annual consumer electronics shows of the year is currently taking place in Las Vegas, Nevada. And throughout the event, robots have taken center stage: embodying a growing number of formats, gaining more skills, and appearing in more places -- at home, at restaurants, and beyond.
Here's a look at some of them.
Household Robots and Teamwork
For some time now, certain robots have been taking on household chores that we humans simply don't want to do -- namely, vacuuming our floors, which companies like iRobot have addressed with products like the Roomba.
At a Thursday discussion aptly-titled "Household Robots: Doing the Chores We Don’t Want To Do," a panel of experts -- including iRobot Chief Technology Office Dr. Chris Jones -- discussed how these domestic, artificially intelligent beings are evolving.
In a way, Dr. Jones said, domestic robots align with the idea of the smart home: a tech trend that's been forecasted as one of the biggest for at least the last two editions of CES. The category describes a system of smart home appliance and electronics -- "smart," because they are designed to autonomously function and often speak to humans -- that work in tandem with each other, exchange commands, and use human voice prompts to execute tasks.
"You’ll say, ‘Alexa, clean the kitchen,’ and then your [household] robot will clean the kitchen," Dr. Jones explained.
But what Jones and his colleagues at iRobot envision is a bit different from some of the big-name smart home systems showcased throughout CES, where intelligent devices will only work together if they're manufactured by the same brand -- which is sometimes known as a branded ecosystem.
In the future envisioned by Dr. Jones, on the other hand, "You don’t have to program your house. We’re working with smart home companies, trying to achieve that same vision for smart home [in which] you just want to ask for what you want," he said, "and have all those different robots behind the scenes … figuring out who needs to get what done in a way that’s personalized to your home.”
That's a hope shared by artificial intelligence (AI) analysts, who spoke earlier this week to an outlook in which different smart devices from different brands work together. But even in a future when fragmented devices can cohesively communicate and exchange commands, the possibility a question: how many households can actually afford to equip their homes with multiple smart devices?
One thing I’ve always wondered about branded ecosystems and smart home hubs: in addition to the likelihood that a consumer has appliances from a single brand in her home, how many ppl can actually afford this full suite of smart products? #ces2019 pic.twitter.com/wVLwai5oAJ— Amanda Zantal-Wiener (@Amanda_ZW) January 7, 2019
One Robot, Many Skills
"Dollars are scarce for a lot of people," said Anki Co-Founder and Head of Cloud AI and Data Science Mark Palatucci. "The idea that there’s a large market of people who will buy four of the same robot … I think that’s a tiny market, a tiny niche.”
In other words, most households are likely not in a position to outfit their homes with multiple smart devices or robots -- yet.
"As we move down the road to that future where these robots are able to do many thing," Misty Robotics Founder and Head of Product Ian Bernstein noted on the current household robot climate, "that moves to a higher price point, and we’re moving toward one per family.”
What wasn't clear, however, is whether one potential outcome would be more affordable than the other: whether a singular robot with multiple skills, while considered premium, would actually cost less than filling a household with multiple robots that are each capable of executing tasks.
The panelists did agree on one point: Consumers largely like their robots to come with personalities.
That Robot's Got Charisma
Speaking to the debate between multiple household robots and one centralized one, Dr. Jones remarked that he can imagine a hybrid of both -- in a way that's highly interactive with the human household.
“I could see a future point in time where there is a [robot] master of the home, who is a but more interactive in the home and has a personality, a character who you interact with," Dr. Jones said, noting that he already sees evidence of this future in current iRobot customer behavior. "You can name your robot in the Roomba app, and most people do."
The growing presence of robots in the day-to-day lives of humans, noted Quartz Mechanical Engineer Lisa Winter, has made many consumers assign human emotions and qualities to them -- which would only be augmented by a cast of household robots, each with varying character traits.
“I quite enjoy every robot having a different personality. Every robot is different, and I would speak to it differently," Winter explained. "The more anthropomorphic [the robot], the more I would feel for it, if it was getting hurt or stuck somewhere."
"I quite enjoy every robot having a different personality. Every robot is different, and I would speak to it differently, and the more anthropomorphic, the more I would feel for it, if it was getting hurt or stuck somewhere."
- Lisa Winter, Mechanical Engineer, Quartz
However, Winter also sees the benefits of an artificially intelligent "master of the house" -- even if it comes in a format different than a physical robot, such as centrally-in-charge voice assistant.
"I would like to have some sort of overall entity that I could speak with," Winter said, "but maybe it doesn’t matter what device."
The Robot Economy
Of course, when discussing the increasing humanization of robots, the topic of jobs is likely to come up -- and how many of them will be filled by our artificially intelligent counterparts.
At an earlier discussion of the AI outlook, Consumer Technology Association (CTA) Senior Research Analysts Sayon Deb and Steven Hummel predicted that a greater presence of AI will actually create jobs for humans -- not take them away -- by creating new opportunities for people to train, explain, and sustain the technology.
But at CES, the prospect of how AI -- and the robots that it powers -- will shape the job market appeared to be a somewhat divisive issue.
On the one hand, some panelists agree that AI and robots carry the potential to create jobs, rather than steal them.
"I think robots are going to become very good teachers. When we get even better AIs and better capabilities in these robots, [they'll] be able to be able to develop a custom curriculum for each kid," Bernstein said. "We have huge shortages of teachers all over the world. Imagine if you had teacher’s assistant robots helping to teach kids. I think the quality of teaching is going to go way up, I think people are going to get smarter."
Palatucci, on the other hand, had a different outlook, pointing to ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft -- whose drivers are often those participating in what's known as the gig economy -- heavily investing in autonomous vehicle technology.
"As soon as those companies really could hit level five autonomy, you have hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people who are out of work," Palatucci explained. "You have that type of disruption possibility that could have a big impact."
But Winter pointed out that there's time to prepare for this disruption.
"With every revolution … a certain job goes extinct," she said. "We know that this is probably going to happen, that we’re going to have autonomous vehicles. It's time to understand that this is the future, and we have 10 years to educate people down this path so that they're prepared.”
Beyond the Household
In any case, this interactive autonomy is going to appear in more places -- both inside and outside of the home.
At CES, for example, we saw several examples of such domestic, companion robots -- such as the one below from Samsung.
Stephen Fiske for News & Trends by HubSpot
But these robots appear to be making inroads in more places where we carry out daily tasks and responsibilities. For example, at restaurants, many robots are replicating such tasks as flipping burgers, and at the gym, where the BoxerBot (my personal favorite) is built to function as a boxing coach, trainer, and opponent. It was no joke -- here's what happened when I gave it a try:
But at CES, the outlook on robots is, overall, positive.
"Things that we already do every day on our phones, our laptops … when they start to put these things on a mobile robot that can move around and interact when we’re not home," said Dr. Jones, "it’s going to completely change the experience for the better.”