Today, sad brings news in the consumer robotics. Anki, producer of Vector, a toy-like autonomous countertop robot, settles down, and hundreds of people lose their jobs. It's a brutal answer to a question we asked last summer: Yes, home robots like Vector are cute, but is this something consumers really want? Apparently not enough customers for Anki, but here it is far less clear: Beyond the success of Roomba, what on earth do we want sophisticated machines to do for us around the house?
Anki was not near the first company to try to fill the home with social robots-people have been on it since the 80s. However, almost everyone has failed – two major over the past year. It was Jibo, the desktop desktop robot who danced and died an early death, and Kuri, the R2-D2-esque machine that rolled around, took pictures of the dinner party before they rolled into the big robot giant in the sky.
The problem with both, and now Anki's Vector, was that none of them really did much. Unlike Roomba and the mythically capable Rosie from The Jetsons they did not have a particular job to do. They were all sweet, yes and undoubtedly charismatic, but three make a curse: Vector, Jibo and Kuri show that you can't sell a home robot on adorableness alone. The machine cannot just be a companion. It must be a worker.
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It is perhaps no more challenging place to do than in the sheer chaos of the home, which robotics call an "unstructured" environment. Robots have been running the factory for decades because it is a "structured" environment that is easy to master. They can travel along prescripted paths and perform high repetitive maneuvers while facing few, if any, unexpected obstacles. In the home, robots have to fight with stairs and children and clutter on the floor. And they have to do it without being able to manipulate objects, perhaps the biggest outstanding problem in robotics. No one has given a home robot a few hands because they would be useless in seizing things.
What Vector, Jibo and Kuri made great strides in is to navigate the complexity of human-robot interaction. "Having a character embedded allows us to do things that are otherwise not socially acceptable from a device," Hanns Wolfram Tappeiner, founder and president of Anki, told WIRED last summer when Vector was announced. "Vector is not just sitting there waiting for you to ask him anything." It would look and scoot about the bench. Unlike a device, the machine was fun ̵
But finally, Vector couldn't pattern the benefit of a typical device. The popularity of assistants such as the Amazon Alexa did not make the corporate job easier. Like Roomba and its sweeping, these assistants make one thing very good. And they do it by sitting still on a worktop, which means they don't have to navigate the chaos of the home. If home robots can't get you a beer from the fridge, wide laundry or literally pick up any object, is there much value in their mobility? And if they're not as clever as Alexa, is there much point in making friends with them?
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The authors of home robots are also struggling to keep up with Amazon's and Google's ability to rapidly iterate on their voice assistants. Hardware like Vector is a completely different story. If the company designs a robot and pushes it out on the market and it does not work as desired, it can take many years to redesign it.
The ultimate goal of home robots cannot even be to build you a new best friend, but to make Robots disappear to some extent in the home. "When it comes to Roomba, it's just a vacuum cleaner, we don't think much about it as a robot anymore," says Cory Kidd, developer of Mabu, a medical robot who interacts with patients. "And I think it's actually a success when people think of these things with regard to the functionality and problems they are trying to solve." Think of the microprocessor: If you're wearing an old digital clock like me, don't think of it as a computer because it's become more of a part of you than something unique. But it's actually a computer.
Nevertheless, which home robots have gone for them is the novel charm. This is where the human-robot interaction bit becomes very interesting. Watching Kuri and Vector roll around piping and booping and following your commands was a fascinating thing to see. Basically, their physical presence allows for a bond with a machine loaded with far more charisma than what a stationary voice assistant can pattern. It is the promise of home robots: The illusion of the agency cannot make them particularly useful at the moment, but they throw a strange new relationship between humans and machines. No longer are robots just tools — they are friends. And maybe one day (maybe once they have cracked their arms and hands), they become so involved in the home, like Roomba, that we will forget that they are robots at all.
Vector may have failed to win enough hearts to survive, but Anki has made invaluable progress in figuring out how this new relationship between man and machine can look. "They were at the forefront of social robot design, and poured so much to get the interaction right," said MIT robotist Kate Darling, studying human robot interaction. It was a beautiful product. But they had trouble growing it from nifty toys to something else. "
Goodbye, sweet Vector. Can you find the tool in Great Robotic Gig in the Sky.
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