When I was a kid, I was sure that when I was an adult female, I had a friendly little robot friend. Adulthood was in the FUTURE, and the FUTURE had robots like R2-D2, Threepio, Data and so on. Unfortunately, I am a taxed adult with a full-time job, and no, I do not have any admirable mechanical friend that sounds weird when I come to my kidnappers and Shenanigans.
But at this time last year, I had the hope that this future is at least in sight. The Kuri robot by Mayfield Robotics was lovable, functional and bustling with its cute behaviors and skilful behaviors. It shook and wobbled as it moved in a room. And unlike some other home robots, this was not a single function. You could use it as a videographer or as a surveillance camera, play music and audiobooks, and there were some basic features of Alexa. It had a strong second year appearance at CES 2018, and when I spoke to CEO Mike Beebe, he said Kuri was on time and on time for shipping.
Jibo, another Pixar-style social robot, also took steps. It not only graced the cover of Time as one of the top 25 inventions of 2017, but it had a series of delays in the start of Indiegogo behind and was finally on the way to the houses. The little guy could answer questions like Alexa, but could also recognize up to 15 people, greet them by name and was quite great at Twerking.
And Aibo – Sony's robot puppy – rose from the dead in 2017, just in time to make a big appearance at CES 2018. He had bright blue eyes, a more realistic look and the ability to memorize faces. The first generation of Aibo had its own fanbase in Japan – so much so that 114 received a traditional Buddhist funeral after Sony stopped repairing the robot dogs in 2014.
These three home bots had more than a few things in common. Unlike the Boston Dynamic nightmare machines, they were cute and friendly. They are designed to interact with the people in their homes as helpers and companions. The new Aibo is prohibitively expensive at $ 2,900, but Kuri and Jibo were at least a little reasonable for a robot. For $ 700 and $ 900, both were still a bit overpriced for the average family. Perhaps just a few hundred of a "convenient" price tag, the solvent early adopters are ready to be the most technically savvy house on the block. High-end robotic vacuum cleaners offer similar prices, and all they can do is clean. (More about robotic vacuums in a second.)
And then the rest of 2018 happened. Although Mayfield Robotics was on course for shipments in January, Mayfield Robotics announced that it would shut down and cancel Kuri. The parent company Bosch simply could not find any investors for the long-term development of Kuri. Then, at the end of November, Jibo, which had had late deliveries in the past, sold its IP assets in a kind of deathblow to the bot. Signs of trouble were already evident in July when a Boston Globe reporter visited Jibo's office visited to find it empty and packed.
Kuri and Jibo are not the only robots to have had a bleak year. Drone launch Airware broke $ 118 million in funding after the company made its own hardware. Even more industrial or conceptual robots have had a hard time. Alphabet has just announced that it will close its shank robotics team. Rethink Robotics, makers of the Baxter and Sawyer robots that made headlines in 2012 about whether they could change production, was also closed after customers found that they were not available in industrial environments.
Is it the technology? The costs? Lack of public interest or benefit? Probably all that.
Building robots that we actually invite to our homes is hard. Apart from development and programming, nobody wants a killer robot dog like Spot Dynamics by Boston Dynamics. But a sweet girl like Aibo is also far too rich for the wallet of an average citizen, considering that it does not do much, except for some unusual accompaniment. And although Kuri and Jibo had lovely characters, their functionality has been overshadowed by much lower priced Smart Home Assistant speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home.
The Anki Vector was a dark horse at the end of this year. The Vector is tiny, adorable, and affordable at $ 250 (for a robot). He is a happy, helpful robot sidekick. It's a hand-sized WALL-E that can answer voice prompts. It's also more of a toy than a real home robot. There is no real reason to buy one … because he can not do anything except a proper bag of party tricks, such as punches and blackjack. After a few days of heartwarming novelty, most consumer bots like the Vector feel strangely empty.
This is the vicious circle of consumer robotics. Without constant investment in nebulous technologies such as robotics, AI, computer vision and machine learning. Most companies do not invest in these technologies for consumers unless they make profits. Consumers will not buy companion robots unless they feel they have a satisfying relationship worth investing in. Repetition ad infinitum.
The only home bots consumers could have left behind this year were robot vaults. These single-purpose ping-pots bots house and suck up dirt and dust, though many of them do a questionable job, and by and large they are limited to dry chaos. (Wiper robots are for the most part completely useless.) However, both Neato Robotics and iRobot, makers of the famous Roombas, have released high-end updates for their product lines. The Neato Botvac D7 Connected can now clean up individual zones and assign multiple floors, while the Roomba i7 + automatically detects rooms and empties its own garbage bin. Both are expensive at $ 800 and $ 950, respectively. But they have cheaper cousins who can do the same things for only $ 300 to $ 400. You can even offer even more reasonably priced robot vacuum cleaners for less than $ 200 for sale. No matter how well they are cleaned, this is cheap enough for people who really hate vacuuming to try it out. If you spend $ 900 on a jibo and can not beat a $ 50 Alexa, you'll be angry.
It's not just the price. Even if robots like Kuri, Jibo, and Aibo are adorable, they carry some weird Valley scary in their DNA. It takes a bit of getting used to that Jibo's head pursues you in a room. You do not know how a real cat or a dog might react to a roomba, but you definitely can not predict how he will interact with Kuri. But more importantly, robotic vacuum cleaners are successful because they do not threaten to confuse them with anything other than a service bot. Yes, we personalize them and give them names. But they have no eyes. They do not speak or make any perverted attempts to have a sense of humor. Robotic vacuum cleaners clean our clutter. That's it. We can choose to make friends, but they do not want to make friends with us – and then do bad work.
And maybe that's the real reason why cute, comradely home robots keep coming to their faces: Existential loneliness is not a problem robots can solve at the moment. It's much more satisfying to join a friend of Tinder, poke an old friend on Facebook, spy on the boy who bullied you on Instagram, or engage in a Twitter dispute with Rando. Home robots such as the failed Kuri and Jibo, the revamped Aibo, or even language assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant could never do more than a line or two at the moment. If I have a crappy day, they can not comfort me, except for an empty "I'm sorry to hear that." You can not celebrate with me when I say I had a great year or tell things faster as my fingers can google an answer. And until she can, is there any point?