CES 2017: “Social Bots”

Evan Ackerman has and interesting discussion of the “social robots” appearing at CES this year. These bots are intended for home use, and, like the voice controlled assistants all over CES, are designed to interact with the inhabitants in everyday life.

Readers commented that all the social robots look similar, and they all look a lot like Jibo, which was unveiled in 2014.

White. Curvy and smooth. Big heads on small bodies. An eye or eyes, but no ears or mouth, and no arms.

Photos: Mayfield Robotics (Kuri), Jibo (Jibo), Bosch (Mykie), LG (Hub)

So, why do they all look so similar? He talked to the designers about these choices.

For home use, the bot needs to match or at least not clash with the décor, so white or black kind of goes with everything. Chrome and gunmetal, not so much. Curvy is sort of organic and therefore friendly, and also safer if there is a collision. And, he says, round heads are easiest to make, mechanically.

The relatively large heads obviously play on the well known human (and other species) perception of “cuteness”, especially of baby animals. Combined with large eyes, the “face” suggests a cute, harmless pet.

Some of the robots have only one (large) eye, while others have two. (Nobody has thought three or more eyes would be a good idea!) Interestingly, none of them have any other facial features.   These choices reflect efforts to navigate the creepy “uncanny valley”, having enough of a “face” to orient and interact with, but not look too close to human.

Aside from the creep-out factor, the designers are working to contain expectations of the humans. If you unconsciously take the bot for more human than it is, then you may expect it to do more than it can. “At this point, robots that try too hard to seem human can only disappoint.”

Given the minimal functions of these robots (they are scarcely more than mobile versions of the voice “hubs” so prominent at CES), I guess it isn’t too surprising that they might resemble each other. After all, how many ways can you make a minimalist head and face?

Obviously, there are other ways to go, besides commodity minimalism. The “Jimmy” bot, goes a more Pinocchio route, with a full body, as well as a complex back story. Johnson’s approach illustrates the potential value of having a personality and personal story. It’s not just “the bot I bought”, it is “Eric, who lives with me now”.

Personally, I’ve always wanted a personal assistant robot that is a raptor, or maybe a whole flock of them. Velociraptors aren’t “cute” or “friendly”, but they would make a sort of “rotweiller” statement. Grr!. Don’t mess with my people.

Size comparison between the early dinosaur “Eoraptor” and a human

One interesting thing to watch this year is the strikingly different interactions designed into the assistants “hubs” (a la Amazon, Google, et al, and appliances so equipped) and these “social bots”. They do many of the same things, but they have different modes of conversation.

In the case of the “hub”, there is no eye contact. Indeed, they are often portrayed as behind and out of sight. But they are listening. So you just talk to the sir, or to your house. It’s always there, always ready.

The bots are designed to face you, and for you to look in the eye (or eyes).   You aren’t speaking to the air, you are speaking to “eric” or whoever you are looking at. “Eric” might be listening all the time, but you don’t necessarily expect it to.

Clearly, talking to a face is more “natural” (at least in the sense of “old fashioned”), but that doesn’t mean people will like it more. To me, issuing commands to the invisible household servant strikes me as awfully aristocratic (which ain’t my style at all). Or it might also resemble not-especially-humble prayers to some kind of minor secular god.

It would be very interesting to do some field studies of actual families with both social bots and “hubs”. I wonder how this kind of augmented household will actually work and evoldve. Which assistants will be liked best? Will something get turned or or ignored after the shine wears off?

Inquiring minds want to know.


Robot Wednesday

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