If Apple Built a Family Robot, What Would it Be Like?

Pixar's Wall-e

Apple has made no announcements. There aren’t even any leaks or rumors about a family robot. But if Apple were to build a family service/companion robot, what would it be like? I shall ponder, just for fun.

Recently we learned that Amazon may well be working on a family robot. The Vesta project. “Amazon’s Vesta Project Means it’s Time For Apple to Step Up its Robot Game.” That article not only covers what Amazon is doing but also points to several TMO articles that discuss Apple and robots.

Tricky Business

Of course, it’s one thing to suggest that Apple may want to compete in this market, given the tremendous cultural, literary and theatrical heritage robots have. It’s almost a given that robots and/or androids will begin to play role in our lives. Amazon seems to believe that, most notably, but many other companies do as well. For example: “Family Robot Companions Are Evolving Fast, Will Soon Be Common.” It’s quite another to conceive of what Apple might do.

kuri family robot
Mayfield Robotics Kuri. So far, leading the way.

That said, it’s not my intention to document and link to every important article about the emergence of robots. Instead, I want to do just one thing. Namely, ponder, for the sheer fun of it, what a robot from Apple would be like. It won’t be a prediction. Rather, for the sake of imagining the future, just how would a company, whose products and values are so well known, approach a project like this?

Knowledge Navigator on Wheels (Legs?)

As a starting point, let’s review an amazing, 31 year-old Apple vision of an artificial intelligence agent that still inspires us today. The Apple Knowledge Navigator.

I’ve pointed to this because one of the core principles of a good robot companion is situational awareness, insight into the human’s intentions, and great communication skills. During the TMO Daily Observations Podcast for May 16, I cited Google Duplex as an emerging standard for how a machine should sound when it chats with us. This is key.

For years, computer voice synthesis has betrayed its technical limits. As a result, we’ve always been able to audibly determine that we’re speaking to a computer. But the holy grail of computing has always been to eliminate that audible distinction. (Unless it’s done for theatrical effect in a movie to explicitly remind us that it’s a machine.) That’s why the AI in Knowledge Navigator sounds like a real human assistant.

The reason for this is because, in my view, if a robot wants to be treated with respect and effectively communicate with us, it has to sound like us.

Next, a robot has to properly and discreetly intermingle with our lives. A robot from Apple will be a mechanical wonder and correspondingly expensive. To warrant that price, Apple’s robot will have to understand a lot about our lives, plans, calendar, demands, needs and contacts. But it will have to do that in a way that’s non-creepy. Observation and deduction instead of obnoxious prying. In line with Apple’s stance on privacy and security, the major computational analysis by the robot will have to remain local.

If you thought Apple has challenges keeping our iPhones secure, wait until one of these family robots is abducted and interrogated. [Insert scifi mental image of robot torture here.]

Finally, a great personal robot has equally great situational awareness. It knows where you misplaced your iPhone. It called for pizza delivery (by your request), so it can alert you as to why there’s someone at the door. It might follow you around and serve as a roving Wi-Fi hotspot. It might serve as a sentry. “I am monitored to admit no one at this hour.” And it won’t alarm the cats. Maybe it will know how to purr. Or figure out how to dispense dry food when it sees that the bowl is empty.

I think robots need to be more service oriented than companion oriented or regular customers won’t perceive enough value. And only the tech giants like Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft have the engineering resources to conceive of and deliver the kinds of integrated services family robots will be good at. And valued for.

Pixar's Wall-e
No, a family robot won’t look like Wall•e. But it WILL be just as lovable. Image credit: Pixar.

Robots Have Miles to Go

Siri has a long way to go in this regard. Siri’s grasp of human speech patterns is still too limited. It cannot yet string together inferences from multiple human discussions and deduce the context and motivations of the interaction with several humans. Siri still sounds too mechanical. Detached and impersonal. No ongoing tactical responses.

The easy part will be a Jonny Ive inspired robot design with large expanses of warm, soft, plastic and big eyes. But at what point can Apple marry the brilliant mechanical being with an entity that’s humanly warm, pleasant, aware of its environment, insightful, discreet, and loyal? When Apple can put these parts together in an Apple-compelling way—so that we are joyful instead of creeped-out, then perhaps the company will usher forth its own vision.

In the meantime, were going to be confronted by various robot designs from other tech giants that seem all too creepy, all-too-prying, and all too aligned with the interests of its maker. Apple is in a unique position to undermine the worst instincts of the industry and help us celebrate a better vision for the future.

I can’t wait.

3 thoughts on “If Apple Built a Family Robot, What Would it Be Like?

  • John:

    Time for just a quick comment, which I was not initially going to make, as I’m supposed to be working, but your call-back to The Forbidden Planet was too much to resist. Much appreciated. If anything, the robot on the new Lost in Space reboot would be handy to have around as a sentry, so long as one could control when he was in ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ mode, and it was wired to obey Asimov’s Three Laws (spoiler alert: no attacking people or walking off of cliffs).

    Your musings on what Apple might do with a robot are, in my view, consistent with Apple’s design and product rationale philosophy. I concur that an Apple-designed robot would be more service oriented than designed merely as a companion, although these are not mutually exclusive. For many, such as people on the autism spectrum or those with limited access to companionship, a companion is just what the doctor ordered, and could greatly assist, for example, a child on the spectrum to learn social pragmatics and overcome social awkwardness.

    Apple are no doubt looking at this space – everyone is. However, it is an established pattern for Apple to look at the market, the current products on offer, then identify the key needs and demands of that market, and if they decide to enter it, provide a facile, consistent if not best-in-class user experience to address those needs.

    Currently, given the limits of the technology, as well as the task-specific industrial-focus for most robots in service today, I think the field lacks consensus on the rationale, use case and therefore functional capabilities of a home serving robot. And then there’s the issue of security, and ensuring that the device is sufficiently hardened against remote attack that a mobile, task-capable robot could not be used to harm or spy on the owner (think the 2004 Will Smith version of I, Robot). One obvious use case, particularly for the ageing populations in the West and Japan, particularly in the context of non-extended family living arrangements, robots that could assist with tasks, mobility and ensuring safety would no doubt be in demand once market ready.

    Not just general service, I suspect that application to areas of critical, life augmenting and improvement needs will be important for driving robot uptake beyond just the niche market and desire for novelty.

  • What makes you think Apple can do anything outside of old iOS stuff? They have gobs of money to invest in R & D yet watch the rest of the world innovate. Where’s the car? Where’s the VR or AR? Where’s a damn solid state battery or ANYthing to do with making graphene sheets? But, no we need more iOS toys because why? What a joke question, but keep dreaming. 🍎

  • I assume it would do a little more than comparable family robots, cost 50% more, and then once out of warranty it’s face would pop off (like my Apple Watch).

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