It wasn’t a great showing for robots at this year’s CES.
Things got off to a rocky start when CLOi, the ringleader for LG’s new artificial intelligence-equipped appliances, failed repeatedly to follow voice commands from LG’s vice president of marketing, David VanderWaal.
Sony’s updated, Wi-Fi enabled Aibo, perhaps in cross-brand solidarity with CLOi, later ignored CEO Kaz Hirai during a Sony press event.
FoldiMate, a clothes folding robot that costs nearly $1000, raised some eyebrows, but not for the right reasons. Attendees were underwhelmed to learn that clothes have to be fed in one at a time, somewhat eliminating the time-savings the device is supposed to deliver. It also reportedly jams easily.
Aeolus, one of the conference favorites, is a latter day Rosie the Robot. It got high marks from a lot of tech reporters for having a dexterous gripper, enabling it, say, to fetch a beer or hold a vacuum. But the demos were constrained to a few pre-programmed use cases in a known environment, and the unit will likely cost in the high thousands. It’s a hint at what a home robot can be, but it isn’t ready for prime time.
There were plenty of other flat notes. A live event featuring brand new tech is bound to yield some bloopers. But the robots at this year’s CES failed in a way that’s less easy to overlook: They failed to make a case that we need robots in the home right now–or at least that we need any new robots in the home.
To understand why, you need only consider what automation is for. In a nutshell, it’s supposed to save humans time. That’s really it. That’s what robots are all about.
Yet most of the companies presenting robots at CES seem to have set aside the notion of helpful automation in favor of a less quantifiable, more abstract sales pitch, one built around engagement, interactivity, and obeisance to technological complexity.
There’s a good reason for that. Turns out automating chores is really tough.
There are all kinds of activities we do grudgingly in the course of a day. We put groceries away, cook dinner, make our beds, sort the laundry, bathe our pets. But for as far as robots have come in terms of dexterity, navigation, and sensing capabilities, there really aren’t that many physical tasks inside the home that the current spate of personal robots comes anywhere close to being able to accomplish reliably.
The small number of chores that can be easily automated already have been. Two of the biggest time sucks in generations past were solved by the most overlooked robots in modern life: washing machines and dishwashers. It’s hard to imagine how whiz-bang crazy those technologies seemed when they were first introduced.
More recently, iRobot and a long list of other companies have tackled the ho hum task of vacuuming contiguous rooms not separated by stairs. By the same token, in Western Europe, where cheap human labor is less readily available than in the U.S., lawn mowing robots have gained popularity.