Bots the big idea: humanoid robots finally ready to move into our homes

SoftBank’s Pepper paved the way, and now a new wave of humanoid helpers from LG, Panasonic, Ubtech, Savioke, Mayfield Robotics and others are ready to migrate from airports and hotels into the home

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 February, 2017, 6:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 February, 2017, 5:14pm

After decades on every sci-fi fan’s wish list, personal robots are on the cusp of entering our homes. Now it’s time to put them to work. Everyone knows Pepper, the child-sized humanoid robot launched back in 2014 who was created to welcome visitors to SoftBank Mobile stores in Japan. Now Pepper has scored a few jobs in the US, from giving directions in a shopping mall in San Francisco to pouring beer at Oakland International Airport’s Pyramid Taproom.

The diminutive Pepper is not alone, not even at airports. LG recently showed off its Airport Robot, a Pepper-sized stationary robot that can listen to, and speak, in Chinese, Korean, Japanese and English. It gives directions, gate information and updated schedules for planes, and will soon be employed at Incheon International Airport in Seoul. A sister robot from LG even cleans airports.

Hotels and high-rise apartments are also embracing robots. Savioke’s Relay delivery robot is all about discreet, timely room service, delivering food, drinks, towels and toiletries to hotel rooms. “Once it’s been installed in a building it knows where all the rooms and elevators are, and you just tell it which one to go to,” says Steve Cousins, chief executive and founder of Savioke, speaking at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month (the exhibition floors of which featured a robot barista from Beijing’s Bubble Lab serving coffee to attendees).

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“We’re not trying to build a grandiose new robot with lots of new capabilities, we just wanted to create a robot that could be around people in the real world,” says Cousins.

Relay is a one-trick robot, but it’s predictable and fits its environment well. For instance, as well as saving hotel staff time, wouldn’t you prefer a robot delivers room service at 2am than a staff member – especially if you’re a lone traveller in a strange city?

Relay is already in more than 30 hotels (Marriott, Hilton, Westin, Starwood and InterContinental) in Los Angeles and Silicon Valley in California, Florida, New York and also at Singapore’s M Social hotel in Robertson Quay, where guests can order items via a smartphone and, after collecting them from Relay’s flip-up “head” outside their door, even send him a tip in the form of a tweet. It’s worked so well that Relay is now about to be used in a San Francisco residential apartment complex as a concierge.

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The hotels, airports and tech company offices of Silicon Valley might be where so-called personal robots are making their debuts doing deliveries and giving advice, but this technology is ultimately destined for the home.

At the CES were myriad “homebots”, such as Panasonic’s instantly cute Kiko, a 48cm-high device that resembles an egg. It’s designed for a desktop or kitchen countertop, and essentially it’s a projector equipped with a microphone and – seemingly par for the course for “companion” robots – a child’s speaking voice and digital chirps that sound like R2D2.

Aside from being able to project things onto surfaces (which Panasonic suggests could have uses in distance learning), the “egg” doesn’t actually do much more than answer questions, tell the time and forecast the weather. Despite being no more interesting or intelligent that Siri, its soft voice – clearly an attempt to form an attachment with the owner – seemingly works. At the CES, there was a crowd of people permanently around the “egg”, talking to it, filming it, or just staring at it with smiles on their faces.

The same attachment theory is behind LG’s Hub Robot, a device that, crucially, has both a “face” on a screen, and a soft, chirpy voice. Its built-in camera and face recognition software helps it calculate who it’s talking to, and though it doesn’t move, it comes with a family of Mini Hubs for placing around a home.

Kuri, also on show in Las Vegas and already on sale (HK$699, heykuri.com), is a similar, but mobile intelligent robot for the home, and makes similarly lovable sounds.

“For generations, people have dreamed of having their own personal robot in the home, and we’ve been focused on making that dream more of a reality,” says Sarah Osentoski, co-founder of Kuri’s maker Mayfield Robotics.

“We’re proud to introduce Kuri to the world and can’t wait to see how he touches the lives of everyone, ranging from parents and children to early technology adopters.”

There are scores of other homebots. Yumi, like the others, has a touchscreen that doubles as both a notification centre and the robot’s digital “face”, while Ubtech’s Lynx can instantly recognise a person and play their favourite music – and even sing to its owner on their birthday.

However, the attention paid to creating human-like traits to encourage empathy is part of a new plan by the electronics sector to develop a new, friendlier and completely hands-free interface between humans and computers.

Perhaps the ultimate example of that trend is Pepper. “Pepper is very much about engaging you as a human,” says Steve Carlin, SoftBank Robotics vice-president and general manager, Americas – creators of Pepper.

“It can read your face, it can read your emotions, it has two arms to gesticulate and communicate – because that’s how we communicate – by mimicking you it creates a bond, it creates empathy. That presence fundamentally changes the interaction.”

That interaction is what will usher in a new era of computing, but the foundations are being laid in the home right now. The past few years have seen the likes of Siri and Google Assistant – virtual robot assistants who artificial intelligence resides in the cloud – enter our homes as apps on phones. But the AI personal assistant now has a physical form, most famously as the Amazon Echo speaker and Amazon Dot gadget, through which it’s possible to ask questions to Amazon’s AI, Alexa.

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In electronics, Alexa is big business. Almost all of this first generation of homebots – and many more gadgets besides – have Alexa built-in, or are at least compatible. In fact, they’re little more than advanced versions of the Amazon Echo. “The ability to talk to your devices is one of the key trends in electronics,” says Carlin. “What robotics really does is it gets rid of the wall between you and your smartphone – instead of pulling out a device and searching for something, you just have a conversation.”

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Some think that artificial intelligence-powered homebots could even be the missing link in the smart home. “The Internet of Things has long been heralded as the saving grace that will make our homes autonomously function, but the standards for integrations right now are not uniform, which has made it difficult for the IoT-enabled smart home to become a reality,” says Haomiao Huang, co-founder of San Francisco-based smart home services provider Kuna Systems.

The theory is that homebots may be able to seamlessly link gadgets using their machine learning skills. “Serving as a central hub, these homebots can act as the homeowner would, making decisions on how to accomplish certain tasks and, eventually, managing sub-bots that control specific areas of the home, such as the kitchen or garage.”

Although it’s really all about hands-free computing, not everyone will like the idea of having a personal robot in every room, especially if they’re equipped with cameras while also being online. Either way, homebots are about to become the ultimate conversation-starter.