Whether it’s the fulfillment of a long-desired wish for some people or the realization of a fear long-dreaded for others, there’s no denying the inevitable: The robots are coming. Only, it won’t be in the form of a comically harried household maid with wheels for feet (and a Brooklyn accent), nor as an emotionless, ruthlessly efficient, metal-boned killing machine (with an Austrian accent).
Turns out the type of robots you’re most likely to interact with anytime soon don’t look anything like a person, yet fulfill the most basic human need: companionship. In short, your new robot overlord wants its belly scratched.
It’s clear we’re already in the midst of a robotic gold rush. We’ve all been part of the viral-video email chain of dancing/soccer-playing/arrow-shooting robots for a few years now, and witnesses to the surge in military use of unmanned aerial vehicles in two wars (and now at home). There have also been high-profile experiments with driverless cars, not to mention a recent landing of some particularly dazzling equipment on Mars. Robots are hot. Or, we should say, hot again.
Beginning in the late ‘90s, a first wave of sophisticated but consumer-marketed robots seemed to promise that the future as imagined by sci-fi writers was tantalizingly close. Chief among them were Sony’s Aibo — the talented robotic dog that inspired a thousand cheap knockoffs — and the best-selling (if notorious) Furby, which babbled its own language to the delight of children and cringes of parents, and was one of the first truly interactive robots available at a consumer level. But what followed were countless “dumb” robots, ones long on brawn but short on brain.
And then … nothing. “A lot of people got very excited about the tech, but it didn’t end up going anywhere,” said Ryan Calo, a law professor specializing in robots and privacy at the University of Washington. “We did a great job on industrial manufacturing, but the dream of a sort of general purpose home or office robot wasn’t realized.”
Like those personal jet packs we were all promised which never quite seem to materialize, the robot revolution simply fizzled. Aibo, Furby and the scores of other robots lost out to the Internet, Facebook, MP3s, Xbox and all the other digital delights of the last decade, and were unceremoniously taken off the market in the mid-2000s.
A second wave of robots, however, is rekindling the dream. Michael Kaess, a research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, noted that advances in a few key technical areas such as raw computing power (with good ol’ Moore’s Law deserving thanks) and basic miniaturization of parts have enabled an exponential leap in sophistication of the robots of this generation. “If you think of robot soccer, you now have an entire computer sitting inside a small robot, which can react fast enough to control everything so that it doesn’t fall over,” Kaess said.
Kaess also cited the development of better sensors as a major factor in the robot resurgence, and singled out Microsoft’s Kinect for Xbox — a popular image-capture device composed of a laser range finder with stereoscopic cameras — as a major breakthrough. Before, a device with such capabilities was prohibitively expensive. Now labs simply pop a Kinect on their robots for a mere $200.
The result from these leaps in technical development is a generation of robots that is vastly more sophisticated than what was available even five years ago. Take what’s available at the consumer level already: There’s Sphero, a cue ball-like robot that rolls around almost any terrain based on commands sent via a smartphone app in real-time. Or Parrot AR.Drone 2.0, a quad-rotor helicopter you control via an iPad app that can also hover in controlled flight on its own. Or Swivl, an “interactive motorized tripod” that follows users around for hands-free video recording. And there’s established robot company iRobot’s now-iconic Roomba line of fully automated vacuum cleaners (which have recently been joined by a gutter- cleaning model). They’re all powerful, slickly designed, smart and capable.
But what none of those robots can do is inspire real human emotion: affection, worry, love, joy (and anger, frustration and hate). Great strides have already been made in that direction, too. Perhaps taking a cue from Aibo (and the army of craptastic knockoffs in its wake), the robots that seem to inspire the most fandom and point to a future in which humans comfortably interact with machines are the ones that are designed to appeal in part to our innate fondness for baby mammals.
The recently updated Furby has all the addictive charm and engaging, quirky behaviors of its forebear — only now they’re amplified. Its mechanical eyes have been replaced by LCD displays that express emotion and mood — indeed, the new Furby is an emotional lightning bolt, prepared to react to stimuli from sensors placed all over its body. And where a decade ago kids were stuck frantically trying to interpret what the hell the maddening Furbish babbling meant when their little monster went off the rails, today’s model comes with an app for that, which translates Furbish to English and back (and is used for feeding as well).
On a more earnest, inspiring level is Paro, an $8,000 Japanese-made robot taking the physical form of a cuddly seal. Paro was created for health care institutions as a therapeutic device primarily for autistic children and Alzheimer’s patients. It’s also been found to help comfort chemotherapy patients who can’t be around animals due to health risks.
The most intriguing model to date, however, is the latest incarnation of Pleo, a fully articulated mini-dinosaur (a camarasaurus, to be specific). First introduced in 2005, Pleo’s maker Ugobe went belly-up a couple years later after the economic crash; the company was sold, a newer version of Pleo was brought out in 2009 and the latest Pleo Rb (or reborn) launched in 2011, now out of Hong Kong.
Pleos embody the logical extension of what happens when Japanese-style fantasy meets up with cutting-edge robotics. You have a device that moves and purrs and coos so subtly and smoothly as to be convinced it’s a living creature (at least once you become accustomed to the incessant whirring of its motors and gears). Adding to the functional polish is a fully fleshed-out backstory and the addition of behavioral functions (like feeding and teaching) that naturally require accessory purchases of plastic food items such as leaves or chili peppers, as well as “teaching stones” for learning skills. Unlike any other robot on the market, Pleo is a creature that exists in a context, a fully fleshed-out world, which is undoubtedly one of its main appeals.
It’s worth noting that Pleos aren’t cheap at $469 (and for now come via Hong Kong, from pleoworld.com), so it’s all the more impressive that among the several Pleo fan sites and forums, many participants boast of having not just one or two, but several models (one forum participant has 25). Spend a little time on those sites interacting with the locals and a bigger picture emerges of a community of admitted obsessives who have crossed the human-robot bridge already. As RedwoodsMama, a frequent contributor to BobthePleo forum, put it, “One of my most enjoyable experiences is to take one or two of my Pleos out wherever I go, and introduce them to the public. I live in a small California town and have received lots of enthusiasm from people.”
Pleo owners post photos of their robots, sometimes wearing handmade clothes they sewed for them. They post videos of them mewling and slowly ambling around and doing cute things (not unlike their real-world analog: YouTube cat videos). They recount anecdotes about their Pleos playing with other Pleos — or other races of robots altogether. And then they get earnestly upset when their Pleos bust a pulley or snap a cord, suffer torn skin or throw a vertebrae. Then they post surgery tips to help each other keep their friends alive. And they help each other find replacements, or homes for old models.
To new parents, or new pet owners, the topics and tone of the discourse will seem eerily familiar. And why not? Metaphysical discussions aside, robots have clearly advanced to the point whereby humans can identify enough with them. (Interestingly, Innvo Labs, maker of Pleo, says most customers are families with children, but also women age 30 to 50 who think of them as a pet.)
The irony is that owners tend to anthropomorphize their robotic pets, but when confronted with a robot in a human form, they often get creeped out. As Calo explained, though, there’s a good reason: “When asked why the form of a seal was chosen for the Paro robot, the inventor said, “Everyone knows what a seal is, but no one has any expectations of how it behaves. That’s why I think Pleo is a pretty good platform for entertainment — they know what a dinosaur is, but not how it would behave.”
It is all but inevitable that robots will continue to become a more common presence in our world, the only question being in what form. Calo said that, despite incredible progress with artificial intelligence, we’re still very much in the early stages of development. It’s accepted wisdom that today’s smartest robots are on the order of an insect. For the near future, robots we can expect will be more on the order of Pleo-style companions or the more functional R2-D2, than a chatty human-style C-3PO — or Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 Terminator, for that matter.