In the great rush to create home robots, it seems that 1,000 flowers are blooming. Many different robots are being tried, combining the basic core of features with different appearances and artificial personalities.
One of this year’s models is ‘Kuri’, which is designed to be simple and cute. It understands speech commands, but “speaks robot”—not synthesized speech, but “cute” beeps and buzzes.
As far as I can tell, it does nothing that a computer or tablet or Alexa can’t do, except in a “friendly”, autonomously mobile package.
It seems that Kuri wanders around your house with its cute face and twin HD cameras. These can live stream over the Internet, to “be your eyes when you’re” away. Kiri also has microphones, of course, to capture sounds and conversations. Kuri will “investigate” unusual sounds. It has speakers, so you can play music, and yell at your baby sister.
This little guy is supposed to “bring joy to your house”. As far as I can tell, the main feature of Kuri is “cuteness”. Is this enough?
Unfortunately, Kuri has gone way off the rails with a new feature, “autonomous video”.
Basically, as Kuri wanders around mapping your house, listening to you, and generally being cute, it will record videos.
The results of this snooping are sent to you (or at least to whoever controls Kiri), where you can select ones that you like. Supposedly, Kiri uses this feedback to learn what you like, and thereby to construct a please selfie video of your house.
Who doesn’t want that?
Well, me, obviously. But, who asked for this feature, anyway???
I have no idea why I would ever want “daily dose of short “life at home’ videos”. I mean, if there is any place I don’t need to visit virtually, it’s the place that I live physically.
But if I did want it, I don’t want an Internet connected device streaming video out of my house to the Internet. And I really don’t want an “autonomous” camera wandering around unpredictably recording my private life.
It’s Alexa on wheels. Eeek.
“Turn it off” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
I’ll add a couple of other points that Kuri brings to mind.
Like may contemporary robots, Kuri does some simple psychological tricks to indicate that he (apparently Kuri is male) is listening. It looks up, it looks ‘happy’, it makes ‘eye contact’ (more or less). This is “cute” in the same way as a pet may be “cute”, and for the same reason—you are projecting human personality onto a non-human actor.
This is probably good marketing, but there is some weird psychology going on here, especially if kids are involved.
First of all: No, Kuri doesn’t actually like you. It isn’t capable of feelings of any kind.
The head and eye gestures raise the interesting question of whether people will tend to mirror these inhuman movements in the same way that they tend to mirror other people as they interact. And will children develop weird behavioral patterns from living with a household robot? Who knows.
Then there is Kuri’s gaze.
It is becoming common to put camera’s behind features that look like human eyes. Kuri has a very abstract, but unmistakably analog to a human head and face, and the eyes are where the cameras are. This is a physical analogy to human senses, but has a sort of perverse twist to it. While a person or a dog sees you with their eyes, a robot is usually recording and streaming with its eyes. This mismatch means that you may unconsciously overlook the invasiveness of those robot eyes (which are really web cams), or perhaps edge toward paranoia about other people’s eyes (which are not web cams).
These “uncanny” confusions are hardly unique to Kuri, though the “cuter” the robot the more powerful the psychological illusions.
Is “cute” a good thing for a robot to be? I’m not so sure.
- Alyssa Pagano, Kuri Robot Brings Autonomous Video to a Home Near You, in IEEE Spectrum -Automation. 2017. http://spectrum.ieee.org/video/robotics/home-robots/kuri-robot-brings-autonomous-video-to-a-home-near-you