Has the time of social robots finally come?  Companies

Has the time of social robots finally come? Companies

He looks like a dog, walks like a dog and behaves like a dog, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a dog. At least that’s what Amazon wants to convince us about the company’s most ambitious project to date, Astro, meant to be the next step in a direction that Bezos & Co. he considers it inevitable, that of pet robots at home. With a special launch price of $ 999.99 and currently available by invitation only, Astro seems at first glance the result of a love affair between a Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner and an Echo Show smart screen, which Amazon says can do a lot of things you might expect from a home robot.

He can map the whole house and then go to order wherever you send it. It can recognize faces and carry objects to a certain person, being equipped with a so-called “payload area”, with a maximum capacity of two kilograms. It can play music and answer questions like any Echo screen. He can wander around the house when we’re not home, making sure (and making sure) everything is fine – for example, he can raise his periscopic arm of the room to show us whether or not we’ve turned off the stove. It may use third-party accessories to record data such as blood pressure. And the list of things he can do is long.

The (un) talented Mr. Astro

Astro is about half a meter tall and weighs about nine kilograms. Its main wheels have a diameter of about 30 centimeters, and are large enough to allow it to pass smoothly over the sills and move on the carpets, while another rear wheel helps keep it in balance. . It can move at a maximum speed of one meter per second and has the ability to move 360 ​​degrees, forward, backward or in any other direction it wants. Under the plastic case are five motors – two for moving, one for raising and lowering the periscope chamber, and another two for twisting and tilting the “face”, in fact an Echo Show 10 screen.

Most of the time, the screen shows two circles that act as “eyes”, allowing us to understand what Astro is doing or where it intends to go. It can also transmit certain states through these circles, twisting them into different shapes and angles, modeled on expressions already displayed by robots such as Jibo or Cozmo. But those circles are not the actual technology that Astro uses to see and orient itself in space. His eyes are actually a complex package of sensors and cameras, including facial recognition algorithms, which allow him to know at all times where he is, what is around him and where he is going.

Astro’s navigation tools are all inside them and don’t need external indicators or guidelines – on which some robot vacuum cleaners are based – being able to know for themselves when it’s about to descend a ladder or hit a object.

In terms of control, Astro can receive commands both by voice and by a dedicated application. As a security measure to prevent unauthorized access or use, the robot can only be associated with one phone.

But as ambitious as it is, the Astro is just a preview of what could be a home help robot in the future. Because Astro still has no arms or attachments. He can’t clean the floors. He can’t climb stairs and can’t get out of the house. Like he can’t do a lot of other things. This is partly why Amazon has limited its availability for sale – even after years of development, it still has a lot to understand.

For now, trying to figure out how useful Astro’s current talents might be in a regular home can be a challenge. In fact, even Amazon has a limited number of uses at the top of the list with home security monitoring and remote care for the elderly. On the other hand, they also say that there could be many other uses, which simply have not been found yet. The way it works now, the Astro feels more like an artificial pet than a real robotic assistant. He can do some tricks, provide entertainment and help a little here and there. But it is still far from what we would expect from a pet robot.

Robot vs Robot

What is certain is that Amazon is convinced that everyone will have a robot in the house for the next five to ten years. From this perspective, Astro is the company’s attempt to gain an edge on a field that will become (too) crowded with competitors. (An approach that the online giant has already successfully tested in the case of Echo.) As is only the first of its attempts to bring a robot into the home of the average person; and given the company’s almost endless resources, Astro doesn’t need to be a sales success to further develop this idea.

Most of the household robots we can buy now are single-purpose machines, as accurate as they are practical. And that’s for a good reason: robot vacuum cleaners like Roomba are much easier to build than, say, the robot in the 2012 feature film “Frank and the Robot.” “Roomba, for example, does one thing, but it does it very well and remains the longest-lived home robot I’ve ever seen. And it’s the kind of strategy that has worked for a lot of different robots, “said Henny Admoni, a professor at the Institute of Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States.

Slowly but surely, the big names in technology have begun to design robots designed to play more roles in our homes. Samsung, the company that has so far built almost any (un) imaginable gadget for the home, has spent the last few years wondering openly what a new generation of home robots could do. A first answer came in the form of Bot Handy, a robot presented as “an extension of yours in the kitchen, in the living room and anywhere else you might need an extra helping hand”, able to gather clothes, put dishes in the car to wash, arrange the table or pour wine into a glass.

In its current form, Bot Handy is a tall, slender robot with two large digital eyes, which changes its expression as it moves. The robot has a single arm that can pivot at three points – shoulder, elbow and wrist – with a “palm” like a clamp at its end. Recognizes objects with the help of cameras mounted on the upper body and hand and can lift to reach objects at height.

Also from Samsung comes a less common concept, in the form of a globe the size of a grapefruit, called Ballie, designed to roll around the house, controlling smart appliances, recognizing voice commands and squatting next to pets.

Both projects are still in the prototype stage, but the South Korean company hopes to have a final version for mass marketing within three years.

Missing link required

Developed by a French company called Blue Frog Robotics, Buddy is a domestic robot that has much in common with Astro. He can control the smart appliances in the house, he can take care of the elderly, he can play with children and he can patrol the rooms in search of intruders. But for Blue Frog founder Rodolphe Hasselvander, Buddy is significantly different from his Amazon competitor – he’s meant to be mostly an “emotional companion”, not just a complicated gadget. “The key to accepting and adopting mass robots is to create an emotional connection with humans,” he said. A thesis indirectly confirmed by one of Amazon’s vice presidents, Charlie Tritschler, who explained at one point that during the testing period, “we were amazed at the number of people who said that Astro’s personality made them feel like part of their family and that they would miss him if they had him for a while and he would disappear from their house ”.

Hasselvander has been working on Buddy since 2015, and despite a few ups and downs, the robot is almost ready to go to work. Blue Frog says it recently struck a deal with France’s Ministry of National Education, which would use 1,750 robots to help sick children, whether at home or hospitalized, interact remotely with their classmates.

In the coming months, Buddy would enter the American market. In addition to the household chores it can perform, Blue Frog has tested it both as a companion for seniors and as an educational tool for children with autism. The reactions were more than positive, but the tests also showed that its users want Buddy to be able to do more. A shortcoming that the Blue Frog team is now trying to solve, making the robot accessible to all developers who want to create their own applications and experiences for it.

“People want to have longer, more meaningful and interesting conversations with new technologies. They are frustrated when everything is too formal. I think there is a hunger and a desire for people to be able to interact with them in a more personal way. A social robot needs to be built so that you feel like you’re interacting with someone, not something, “says Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Personal Robots Group at MIT Media Lab. In his opinion, we should build our robots taking into account first of all the way humans interact with each other.

A pioneer in the research of social robots, Breazeal is also one of the members of the team that created Jibo, the star robot who arrived on the cover of Time magazine and financed with over 70 million dollars. However, with the appearance of an oversized office lamp, Jibo died prematurely, in 2019, when the servers that powered it were closed.

Like other social robots, Jibo was designed to conquer us not so much through his cognitive functions as through his personality and sociability. He was scheduled to do many of the things that an artificial intelligence assistant does, but more importantly, to recognize faces, observe when someone enters the room, greet or make a joke. However, the price of $ 899 was hard to swallow for many, especially since Amazon, Google or Apple had already launched much cheaper and more advanced smart speakers on the market, so Jibo could no longer sustain itself as a business.

However, his social legacy seems to live in domestic cars like Buddy, but they are still far from high expectations for what social robots, induced in the minds of popular culture people at Metropolis, should be able to do. Fritz Lang’s (1927).

Speaking of these expectations, Henny Admoni of Carnegie Mellon believes that it will take some time for social robots to become as popular as their more practical counterparts today. “I don’t think it’s going to happen in the next two years,” she says. “We have not yet made enough progress to build the social robot that we all imagined we could have in our homes. But I would be happy to prove myself wrong. “

This article appeared in issue 135 of . magazine.

PHOTO: Getty