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Household Robots Are Here, but Where Are They Going?

Social robots like Amazon’s Echo can play music and tell you the weather today, but their real promise is potentially decades away.

Social robots like the quasi-anthropomorphic Jibo and Amazon’s far more utilitarian Echo are beginning to find their places in our living rooms. The consensus seems to be that they are pretty cool but leave a lot to be desired. These robots perform a lot of the functions that smartphones and tablets do—which is to say, they’re fun but superfluous. They also need to get better at recognizing speech or reliably calling up requested information.


But focusing on what home robots can do now might be the wrong way to look at it. The more interesting question is, what will they be able to do in five years, or 10, or 50? All we know for sure is: a lot more than they do now.

“We have to remember that we’re in the very early stages,” says Maja Mataric, the founding director of the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Center at the University of Southern California. “But it’s only a matter of time until they’ll be capable of a whole spectrum of things”—for example, making dinner or tidying up a room.

We’re at such an early stage, in fact, that there’s not even agreement on what a “social robot” is, exactly. Jibo and Echo are both commonly referred to that way, but there are big differences between them. Jibo (which has so far been available only to “early adopters,” and will start shipping to consumers next year) is much more like what most people think of when they think of a robot—it’s animated and highly interactive. Echo is a monolith—a simple, sleek cylinder that mostly responds to commands. Jibo is cute, Echo is austere. Jibo is video-enabled, Echo is not. Jibo costs $749, Echo costs $199.

But while Jibo can move, neither device is mobile, partly because there’s not yet any reason for them to be mobile. They can’t wash windows or make an omelet. “When they can do physical work, that will be much more compelling,” Mataric says. Roboticists hesitate to guess when that will happen. “Eventually, they’ll be able to make gumbo,” says Cynthia Matuszek, a robotics researcher at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. But “multiple decades” is her closest guess to when that will be. In the meantime, social robots can perform fairly simple tasks, with varying degrees of success, in response to voice commands. Echo goes by the name “Alexa,” So you can say “Alexa, play the new Mumford & Sons album,” and it will do so. Or you can ask it for the weather forecast. Jibo, meanwhile, can engage in simple conversations, as it swivels and wriggles about and displays video images. It can teach kids languages, or, sitting on the kitchen counter, teach adults recipes.


In the coming years, machine learning will enable these robots to converse meaningfully with humans. They’ll continually adapt, and get to know their owners. This is why Jibo’s inventor, Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Laboratory, refers to the robot as “a member of the family.” During an interview, Jibo’s product manager, Matt Revis, refers to Jibo as “he” throughout. “When you’re talking to him,” Revis says, “you feel like you’re interacting with someone.”

There is a lot of debate among roboticists over whether robots should have humanoid characteristics. Matuszek says there is “a lot of value” in thinking of robots as companions, mainly for specialized purposes such as caring for elderly or isolated people, or autistic kids. But, she says, “people in general tend to personify their devices whether or not they’re cute.”

If teaching kids how to play the piano is the goal, maybe the humanoid approach is best. But if you just want a hub for your smart home, Echo’s approach is better.

That in fact seems to be Amazon’s goal with Echo. You don’t need your robot to be humanoid to tell it to turn off the downstairs light (which Echo will soon be able to do) or order more detergent (which Amazon will gladly sell you).

Robots as smart home hubs seem to be the most promising area in the near term. For all his references to Jibo as a “companion,” Revis enthusiastically supports the notion of it (sorry, him) as a turner-on of lights and a locker of doors. Such tasks “fit nicely into his charter,” Revis says. The main challenge for now is technical standards, which are highly complex and far from settled as companies like Google and Apple also make their way into the market.

But fairly soon it will be routine for homeowners to bark out “turn the lights down 20 percent” and have it happen. Eventually, a robot-controlled smart home will “understand where a person is in the home and know what they want” without even being asked, says Michael Wolf, the founder of NextMarket Insights. He estimates that the market for owner-installed smart homes will rise from about $1.3 billion today to about $7.8 billion by 2019.

Some of this might seem far-fetched to current users of social robots, who sometimes can’t get the things to understand simple commands. “It’s all very clunky now,” says Matuszek, “They’ll just keep chipping away at small tasks, getting better and better at them. There won’t be a particular point in time where we say, ‘Oh, we’ve arrived.’ ″

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