Social robotics continues to develop, and new robots are appearing on the market all the time. According to reports from this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), robots stole the show. Typical of the reporting, USA Today wrote, “We saw robots to make your morning coffee, pour candy, fold your clothes, turn on and off your lights, project a movie on the wall, handle your daily chores and most impressively, look just like a human, or in this case, legendary scientist Albert Einstein, with facial expressions and movement.”
Turn on and off your lights? Well, all these little household applications may seem like small, even trivial steps along the way to the robotic future of our favorite scifi movies, but they are steps, and consumer demand for social robots, i.e., robots that interact with us socially and/or play predominantly social roles in our lives, I would argue, is key to the development of useful and human-supportive (as opposed to destructive) artificial intelligence.
Although I didn’t attend CES this year, here are three relatively new social robots that intrigue me:
Pillo, The Home Health Robot for Your Family
Offered currently on indiegogo, Pillo is one of several applications of social robotics to the provision of healthcare. As I’ve written before, as medicine becomes more and more automated, there will be value in the automation having some “bedside manner,” that is, exhibiting behavior that is informative, comforting, social and friendly.
Here’s the description of Pillo from its creators: “In today’s hectic word it can be easy to forget the things that truly matter, like the health & wellbeing of you & your loved ones. That’s why we created Pillo. Pillo can answer healthcare Q&A, connect with doctors, sync with mobile & wireless devices, store & dispense vitamins & medication, & can even re-order them for you from your favorite pharmacy. What’s more, his skills will grow as we build additional applications on Pillo’s platform. Stay healthy & discover true peace of mind with Pillo.”
Mykie, “My Kitchen Elf,” The Home Kitchen Assistant
From Bosch, Mykie is at this point a concept robot that was exhibited this year at CES, but as a kitchen robot type, he exhibits an IoT connectivity that is likely to develop further in the future, especially in smart home and smart city contexts. Mykie can suggest recipes but can also connect to a smart kitchen environment to optimize recommendations. As IEEE Spectrum wrote, “Bosch is hoping that a substantial amount of Mykie’s usefulness will come from the way it can integrate into the rest of your kitchen. For example, you can ask Mykie to come up with recipes that use the food you currently have in your smart fridge, and as you start cooking, the robot will preheat the oven to the right temperature for you at the right time. You can also use Mykie’s “virtual social cooking” to remotely attend cooking classes in real time, following along in your kitchen at home as both Mykie and a human instructor help you cook something that you might not otherwise be comfortable cooking on your own.”
Gatebox’s Virtual Home Robot
Last but not least is Gatebox’s Virtual Girlfriend, uh, I mean Virtual Home Robot. Gatebox claims to be “the world-first virtual home robot with which you can spend your everyday life with your favorite characters.” In the video, of course, the application is that of a romantic or emotional companion for a lonely male corporate worker. It may be a sad reflection of the increasing isolation in our increasingly digitized global society, but it’s clear that robots and tech in general will have a valuable role to play in caring about human beings in the future. An article from the UK outlet Daily Mirror asks whether Gatebox is “romantic or incredibly creepy?” But to paraphrase the Bard of Avon, the answer is likely all in the eye of the beholder.