In part 1 of this series, we covered some of the simplest, most utilitarian robots on the market.
Part 2 showed you just how fun and educational robots can be.
Here in part 3, we’re going to take a look at some of the most advanced home robots in existence today. These robots interact with you throughout the day, use AI to learn your habits, and help you manage your relationship with the technology you use.
In short, these robots want to be your personal assistant.
Robot Butlers Aren’t What They Used to Be
The idea of having a robot butler or robot maid (or even a combination of the two) has been around for a long time. Someone who can greet your guests at the door; do your laundry; make sure your kids do their homework; wash, dry, and stock your dishes; ask you what’s wrong when it finds you looking sullen at the end of a long day…
The reality is that this kind of technology is decades away at the very least, and there are many reasons to believe that we’ll never see a robot butler in every home.
At the same time, our ideas of what a robot assistant might look like and what it will be capable of are constantly evolving, thanks in part to the unique and ingenious home automation products that are expanding the possibilities for the ways we interact with our technology.
And thanks in large part to the robot assistants that we’ll cover in this article.
Not every high-profile, venture-backed offering in this space has been a hit. Some of them have been incredibly disappointing flops, promising more than they eventually proved able to deliver in terms of functionality, usefulness, and depth of user experience.
But there are a few that genuinely hold a lot of potential to change the way we interface with the technology we use. Here are our favorites.
Each company that makes robot home assistants deals with the issue of personality differently.
Kuri is one of the most unique, because while she definitely has a personality, her developers intentionally limited her abilities in order to set the right expectations for her intelligence level.
Kuri doesn’t speak a human language. Instead, she communicates using body language along with cartoon-like robot noises. In the words of her development team, to give Kuri a human language “would give the impression that she’s at least as intelligent as a five year old,” something that current technology is not close to being able to pull off.
Yet Kuri is designed to be charming, even if communication is rudimentary. She purrs when you pet her head, responds to certain phrases with emotive sounds and body language, sneezes, etc. It’s Disney Pixar cute, and that’s not by mistake – a long-time animator from that company was the go-to team member when it came to designing Kuri’s movements.
And it’s the details and subtleties of that movement that give Kuri her personality. Physically, Kuri is little more than a cone-shaped body with a round head on top (she looks like a mechanical penguin more than anything). Even with such a simple design and limited movement capability, Kuri’s developers managed to give her an impressive emotional range.
Just as you would expect, Kuri integrates with other smart home devices (using ITTT technology) and responds to voice commands, so she has the capacity to be a kind of rudimentary mobile hub.
To sum up Kuri’s most important functions, she aims to be a companion, family videographer, and surveillance tool all wrapped up into one package. Her personality seems to be especially designed for small children, which makes sense; they’re the ones most likely to be enthralled by the idea of an adorable robotic friend.
Kuri’s videographer function is designed to make it easier to get videos of family interactions without having to interrupt what you’re doing by reaching for your phone. Aside from taking videos on demand, she also uses her AI to determine when something might be movie-worthy. This allows her to take the initiative of filming 5-second intervals throughout the day, leaning heavily on her facial recognition technology to make these decisions.
Kuri is also designed to be your eyes when you’re away from home, offering both automated and manual surveillance. Kuri will roam your house while you’re out, taking videos of anything she considers unusual and making them available through your smartphone. You can also take control of Kuri from anywhere using the companion app, allowing you to check in from afar. You can even deliver pre-recorded messages to your kids or pets, like “put that down” or “get off the couch”.
Refraining from giving Kuri a human language may have been more than a way of limiting expectations about her intelligence. Kuri’s personality occupies a unique place between animal and human, one that we don’t really have an analogue for. She’s kind of like a super-smart pet. While other robot assistants attempt to mimic humans (a task that is ultimately bound to fall short of being convincing), Kuri’s creators have made something that feels wholly new.
Temi is designed with the simple idea of putting you at the center of your own technology.
At its core, it’s similar to the concept of the connected smart home. As our technology tools continue to multiply, they naturally become harder for us to manage. Temi is not designed to be a companion, as it doesn’t have any semblance of a personality; it won’t tell you jokes, or twerk, or giggle when you pet its head. Temi exists for one thing – to make it easier and more convenient to use technology that already exists.
In a telling quote, Temi’s VP of Product says that their goal is “to emphasize human relationships, not substitute for them.”
Temi is designed to make it easier to answer the phone when you’re in the middle of doing the dishes. Or order food without having to put down what you’re doing, find the phone, and dial it yourself. Or make a video while you’re playing with your kids.
Temi is basically a tablet on wheels. At around 3 feet tall, you could say that its form is vaguely humanoid (very vaguely), with a tablet for a head, wheels instead of feet, and no arms. And Temi does come equipped with voice and facial recognition. But unlike with other home robots, this is purely for functional reasons, not because it wants to create an emotional bond with you.
For instance, when you say, “Call Mom,” Temi knows who to call because it recognizes your face and/or voice. It also uses it recognition skills to learn individual family members’ habits and preferences.
Roboteam, the group that brought you Temi, has been making robots for the military for years. That expertise allows them to build a robot that navigates way better than your Roomba, using the same system that Roboteam used to build out the machines used by the Air Force.
According to Yossi Wolf, Temi’s co-creator and CEO, the difference between Temi’s navigation and that of a Roomba is like the difference between “an iPhone and a Motorola walkie-talkie.”
This is important, because if Temi’s going to get caught up on the edge of your kitchen table, or ding up your furniture, or knock over a lamp every once in a while, it’s going to be hard to justify keeping it around.
Its tracking and navigation are indeed impressive to watch. Temi doesn’t just recognize your face, it learns your individual shape from multiple angles, so that it can follow you even if you turn around and walk away. Just push a button on top of its head, and it will tag along wherever you go. If you want it to stop, push the button again. If you want it come to you from another room, just say so.
In essence, Temi adds mobility and convenience to your current technology setup. Whether you want to make a video call, find out the weather, control your smart home devices, or do anything else related to the technology you currently have in your home, Temi brings that capability right to you, wherever you are.
And due to the military pedigree of its designers, what Temi does it does at the highest level. For the chronic multi-tasker who is looking for a way to integrate all of their home technology and truly become the center of their own tech universe, Temi might just be the best answer.
Of the three robot assistants on this list, ElliQ (pronounced “Ellie Q”) seems to have the most well-defined target audience.
Some of the less impressive robot assistants on the market seem to exist mainly for the novelty effect. Without a clear definition of who they serve or why they’re needed, they sometimes give the impression that their makers created them just because they can.
And while that kind of open-ended experimentation is a crucial part of innovation, it’s not great for sales or marketing.
ElliQ, on the other hand, is specifically designed for seniors (especially those who live alone), and molded to fit their needs. Hence ElliQ’s tagline: “Keeping older adults active and engaged.”
A key feature of ElliQ’s personality is its ability to make “proactive personalized suggestions.”
Seniors often struggle with remembering to do the things that they know they need to do. Or, just as often, finding the motivation to do them without a little encouragement. ElliQ, like other robots, uses AI to adapt its personality to its owner’s needs. This allows it to make timely suggestions throughout the day, like exercising, playing mind-sharpening games, taking medication, and even interacting with family and friends through social media, video, and voice calls.
This element of guidance is at the heart of ElliQ’s promise; it’s not hard to envision ElliQ becoming a staple in seniors’ houses. And ElliQ’s personality seems well tailored to this function, providing the gentle cajoling that’s necessary to keep its owner on track with the activities that are vital to maintaining a high quality of life in one’s later years.
ElliQ’s persistence and sense of humor make its suggestions much more persuasive than a simple electronic reminder. In short, ElliQ has enough of a personality to be a welcome companion without replacing the need or desire for real human interaction.
Though composed simply of a “head” (featureless except for the round light that illuminates when she’s speaking) and an attached tablet, ElliQ’s movements manage to seem emotive and fairly human. Her design and personality strike a nice balance, providing natural communication without the self-conscious pretense that she’s more than a robot.
Perhaps more than any other robot assistant available right now, ElliQ shows a great clarity of purpose. Her target audience is well-defined, and her personality is constructed around their needs; very little about ElliQ feels like a gimmick.
Whereas with other robots, there is the constant question of whether they will ultimately be seen as a luxury novelty, ElliQ seems thoroughly designed to meet a very specific problem – the loneliness and lack of guidance faced by so many seniors who live alone. This focus pays off in a product that just may be at the head of the pack in its ability to deliver on its promise.
How and Where to Buy These Robots
Each one of these robot assistants is currently at a different stage of development/distribution.
Kuri is currently available to the general public, and appears to be shipping to buyers just a few months after they place a reservation.
ElliQ has a waitlist you can join from Intuition Robotics’ website, and Temi gives you the option to either join their early adopters program or sign up for their newsletter to receive updates. Both are set to ship in 2018.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our little journey through the rapidly evolving world of home robotics. It’s still a young category, and new breakthroughs will surely come over the next few years. It’s anyone’s guess what shape they’ll take.
The good news is that none of these robots are here to replace you, take your job, or enslave you, no matter what the alarmists want you to believe.
Still, we can’t blame you if you’re a little freaked out by this.