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Friday, May 29, 2015

Household Robots Are Here, but Where Are They Going? by Dan Mitchell

Dan Mitchell, Guest Contributor writes, "Social robots like Amazon’s Echo can play music and tell you the weather today, but their real promise is potentially decades away."

Introducing Amazon Echo 

Social robots like the quasi-anthropomorphic Jibo and Amazon’s far more utilitarian Echo are beginning to find their places in our living rooms. The consensus seems to be that they are pretty cool but leave a lot to be desired. These robots perform a lot of the functions that smartphones and tablets do—which is to say, they’re fun but superfluous. They also need to get better at recognizing speech or reliably calling up requested information.

But focusing on what home robots can do now might be the wrong way to look at it. The more interesting question is, what will they be able to do in five years, or 10, or 50? All we know for sure is: a lot more than they do now.

“We have to remember that we’re in the very early stages,” says Maja Mataric, the founding director of the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Center at the University of Southern California. “But it’s only a matter of time until they’ll be capable of a whole spectrum of things”—for example, making dinner or tidying up a room.

We’re at such an early stage, in fact, that there’s not even agreement on what a “social robot” is, exactly. Jibo and Echo are both commonly referred to that way, but there are big differences between them. Jibo (which has so far been available only to “early adopters,” and will start shipping to consumers next year) is much more like what most people think of when they think of a robot—it’s animated and highly interactive. Echo is a monolith—a simple, sleek cylinder that mostly responds to commands. Jibo is cute, Echo is austere. Jibo is video-enabled, Echo is not. Jibo costs $749, Echo costs $199.

Jibo: The World's First Social Robot for the Home

But while Jibo can move, neither device is mobile, partly because there’s not yet any reason for them to be mobile. They can’t wash windows or make an omelet. “When they can do physical work, that will be much more compelling,” Mataric says. Roboticists hesitate to guess when that will happen. “Eventually, they’ll be able to make gumbo,” says Cynthia Matuszek, a robotics researcher at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. But “multiple decades” is her closest guess to when that will be. In the meantime, social robots can perform fairly simple tasks, with varying degrees of success, in response to voice commands. Echo goes by the name “Alexa,” So you can say “Alexa, play the new Mumford & Sons album,” and it will do so. Or you can ask it for the weather forecast. Jibo, meanwhile, can engage in simple conversations, as it swivels and wriggles about and displays video images. It can teach kids languages, or, sitting on the kitchen counter, teach adults recipes.

Source: MIT Technology Review, amazon Channel (YouTube) and Jibo The World's First Social Robot for the Home Channel (YouTube)