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Will Knight

A View from Will Knight

Don’t Expect Too Much from This Robot, Buddy

A robot might seem like a useful thing to have around the house, but is the reality up to the hype?

  • August 19, 2015

I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Buddy the robot when it visited our offices this week. It seemed a little hard of hearing, forgetful, and generally baffled by what was going on.

Buddy is about the size of a cat riding a Roomba, and to be honest, it’s only marginally more useful.

Buddy is a robot companion and home helper being developed by a company called Blue Frog Robotics, based in Paris, and several executives are touring the U.S. demonstrating a prototype.

The little white robot is cute enough, attracting a crowd of curious admirers and craning its neck around from the floor as people try to talk to it. But it hardly seems very useful. Buddy could perform a few tricks, like introducing itself, describing the local weather, and doing a little dance. But it kept mishearing commands, and it was entirely unable to strike up a meaningful conversation. As the executives repeatedly shouted “Dance, Buddy,” the robot’s face just rotated through a series of odd expressions, and it kept repeating the sad, confused phrase “I’m tired to talk.”

After asking Buddy a few questions, I felt a little tired to talk, too. Perhaps the robot was just exhausted by the whole experience. It was just a prototype, after all. And maybe the finished version will be far more polished, and maybe developers will quickly build some impressive new apps.

But Buddy’s shortcomings do seem to illustrate a gap between expectations and reality building up around domestic robots. The promotional video created for a crowdfunding campaign used to raise money for Buddy’s development, for example, promises something extremely sophisticated and intelligent: a robot capable of roaming the house, conversing with people naturally, and assisting thoughtfully with chores.

In truth, before anything like that can become a reality, progress needs to be made in natural language processing, machine vision, and human-computer interaction. For example, Buddy does come with facial recognition software, but it has trouble working from such a low angle, with lights glaring behind people’s heads.

I don’t mean to be too hard on Buddy or his creators. For the expected price tag ($749), Blue Frog Robotics has put together something relatively sophisticated. The hardware consists of a touch-screen tablet connected to cameras, and ultrasound and thermal cameras. The finished version will include a 3-D mapping sensor from Intel. The developers are also taking a smart approach by building Buddy’s interface with Unity, a common software platform used for games, and by making it easy for developers to build apps for the robot.

But all that doesn’t add up to a proper robot helper. So while it was nice to see you, Buddy, I’m not going to invite you into my home just yet.

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