In fiction, robots are stronger, smarter and often better-looking than we are. They’re also utterly loyal – until they turn against us, that is. But the reality remains a profound disappointment for sci-fi fans. Right now, the closest we can get to a C-3PO, or a Kryten, is a robot vacuum cleaner.
However, that all changes this year as the desire for some kind of humanoid helper to manage our smart homes continues to grow. When Mark Zuckerburg revealed that he was working on an AI to help him run his high-tech home, he wasn’t the only one. You might be surprised to know that a number of robot home helps are already under way.
Meet and greet
The Double Telepresence robot is a remote communication device with an iPad for a head that you can drive around the office from the comfort of your home – and it’s available for order in the Apple Store right now. It means you can ‘arrive’ at meetings and have face to Facetime discussions with colleagues. Conversely, you could leave it behind to scoot around your smart home, and chat to your family and visitors while you’re at work.
But apart from showing your own cheery face on screen, it’s essentially a pole on wheels rather than an autonomous android companion. JIBO, on the other hand, is a social robot and, although it lacks mobility and facial features, its circular screen conceals a camera with face recognition software that articulates its neck to track your movements, making it seem oddly alive. As well as handling your calls, JIBO can read out your emails, social-media posts, diary dates and relevant news stories.
And like any good PA, it learns your habits to improve efficiency. JIBO, which is almost ready for release, can even hold a rudimentary conversation, but HAL 9000 from 2001 this is not. Miro, the biomimetic robot pet, is less talkative but more mobile. The rabbit-eared educational toy moves autonomously and interacts when it recognises a human face. It responds to your perceived mood or actions by showing sadness or joy itself. You’d be surprised at how expressive moveable eyelids and a drooping tail can be.
Big in Japan
But if you’re hoping for a more humanoid companion, Pepper is the amiable android that can recognise and respond rather more realistically than any rabbit. Standing 120cm tall, Pepper will trundle after you, responding to your facial expressions and speech, and reacting to situations it recognises. it’s already a hit in Japan, where banks and shops are using its people skills to fi eld customers’ questions, and you can place an order for your own personal robot for 198,000 yen (around £1,200). for a more affordable robot steward, there’s Buddy, a short, child-friendly ’bot from france that’ll go on sale for around £500. it, too, has face-recognition software, so it can respond appropriately to each member of the household and pass messages between them.
The face is an lcd screen that Buddy uses to display information and act as a skype phone. Buddy can also patrol the house while everyone is out, reporting anything that seems out of the ordinary – such as an unrecognised face – by sending you a picture. LOYaL serVant one thing science fiction didn’t predict is a robot that you can ride on. ninebot is the result of an intel/ segway partnership, and it’s a self balancing, two-wheeled vehicle that sprouts a head when not being driven, so it can go about its own business autonomously. with three cameras behind its wide emoji eyes, ninebot can judge distance, recognise faces and take pictures when it’s on watch duty.
It can also follow you around, picking its way between furniture, answer the door and, of course, dance when it has its optional arm attachments. ninebot is the most unexpected, and possibly the most useful, of the smart-home robots, and it’ll be arriving at the end of this year, giving us real hope for the future of robotkind. as for humankind, the writing is on the wall.