Family Robot Companions Are Evolving Fast, Will Soon Be Common

Mayfield Robotics Kuri

I just interviewed a company that’s making a family robot companion, and I’ve seen the future more clearly than ever.

Here’s the background. Those of us who are science fiction and robotics nutcases have always assumed that family service robots would be task oriented. That is, sweep the floor, do the dishes, fold the laundry, etc.

The problem there is that such a mechanically capable robot would not only be physically imposing but also beyond the financial reach of most families.

A New Path Forward

A better alternative is what I’ll call companion robots. These robots don’t have to bring a giant bag of dog food in from the truck or carry the laundry upstairs. Instead, they just have to be cute, alert, expressive, good listeners, good companions and, most of all, affordable.

Just recently, for my Background Mode podcast, I interviewed the VP of Marketing for Mayfield Robotics, Chris Matthews. The show will air soon. He described the incredible amount of psychology that goes into the design of a companion robot. (I’m sure there are other companies doing this, but, hey, one step at a time.)

Robotic hardware is still hard. It’s still expensive. Any company that entertains the thought of manufacturing and marketing a family robot will be faced with substantial challenges when it comes to capability vs. cost. That means a very clear vision for what the robot is intended to do is necessary these days.

Coming Soon

I have a feeling that soon, probably this summer, I’ll experience my first affordable family companion robot. And from that point forward, it will be fascinating to see how this industry evolves. Right now, I’m thinking that our (sometimes alarming) science fiction vision of robots that have appeared in film will be rather different than the reality in store for us.

Modest hardware, very fast processors, an internet connection, machine learning and AI software will play an extraordinary role if they’re fused together with a crisp vision and smart engineering. They’ll make the currently, in vogue, intelligent speakers seem like the 8-track tapes we dumped into the closet years ago.

I can’t wait. And, maybe, neither should Apple.

3 thoughts on “Family Robot Companions Are Evolving Fast, Will Soon Be Common

  • I don’t understand the whole research and development program of building machines that think like humans.

    Human thought is tied to emotion and emotion is driven by psychic and physical pain and pleasure. What purpose does emotion serve in human thought? Intuition, gut feel, calibrating responses to suit the urgency of a situation, decision-making under conditions of inadequate information, forming instantaneous ethical and moral judgements about totally new situations, etc.

    If you read enough material about neuroscience and philosophy of mind, you will come across the case of ‘Eliot’, an otherwise intelligent, successful man whose life fell apart after a tumor rendered him unable to feel much emotion even though he continued to do very well in tests of cognitive ability. The problem was that without his emotional faculties, his decision-making deteriorated so badly that he was unable to sustain a normal functioning life. [Here’s a link about the case:

    My point? I have very little doubt that robotic minds will do amazing things in the future but I am not sure that they can deliver what AI proponents seem to be promising today: that they can think and act just like you and me and can do everything we can, only better, because machines are more consistent, predictable and reliable than us flighty, moody, emotional humans.

  • Robotic hardware is still hard

    I work for a company that makes industrial robots and I could not agree more. Ours don’t have personality or independence and we still encounter all sorts of unexpected quirks. Everything impacts everything else. Every change has to be fully tested even if it “shouldn’t affect anything”, as our programmers keep saying. Even if we test everything, customers often find odddities. My favourite is when the customer calls saying “it does X when I do Y”. I take the complaint to engineering or software and they always say “But why would they do that?” This is why engineering or software don’t take the calls. Robots are complex and hard. Even more so for a companion or assistance robot.

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