Why Apple Should be the SECOND Big Company to Make Consumer Robots

| Particle Debris

From I, Robot. Credit: 20th Century Fox.

Apple is a company with great values and makes best in class products. And so when a new technological opportunity comes along, we're naturally enthusiastic about Apple getting into the game. But in the case of commercial, family robots, it'l be wise for Apple to keep its powder dry, invest in artificial intelligence with cars, and let another company take the initial risks.


The Particle Debris theme article this week is by Jillian D'Onfro who tells the inside story of Google's ambitions plan to roll out consumer robots. "Google’s robot group struggles to fill leadership vacuum as it shoots for ambitious launch before 2020." It's really good.

Google's robotics division has an initiative called "Replicant." It's a collection of companies that have been acquired as the group works towards the launch of a consumer robot by the year 2020. The story itself is very well done and covers the history of the project and the after effects of Andy Rubin's departure. In itself, it's a very good background article.

But that's just the beginning of the story about our future with commercial robots. The article reminded me that, in our current state of technology development, we're in a headlong rush to make everything we've ever conceived of happen. And make it fast. The future is always now.

There are several reasons for this. First, companies that are experts at hardware and software integration are desperate to get a jump on the competition. Getting out in front and going big has its advantages, as Amazon knows so well. Second, our modern facility with technology means that, in the words of Walt Disney, "if you can dream it, you can do it." It's exciting to be first.

This kind of thinking has propelled us into an age of the Internet, smartphones, tablets, exotic automotive technologies, and eCommerce. Just like all these technologies, robotics is also going through development phases. For years, we've had manufacturing robots. The Japanese have specialized in the technologies of personal robots with Asimo. Alphabet, as described above, is working on usable consumer robots. In a strong sense, autonomous cars are robots on wheels with situational awareness. We ride inside the robot.

And yet, the subtle implications of the human, especially children's, interaction with consumer robots will be one of the most challenging technologies homo sapiens has ever confronted. This is an area where going slow as opposed to rushing into production will probably be wise, but doing so violates every technology tenet we've developed over the last few decades.

As we move closer to the reality of consumer robots, we're able to size them up and make some predictions abut how they'll impact our culture and economy. See, for example, "Robots may shatter the global economic order within a decade." More importantly, our current state-of-the-art in software and hardware often means we're not able to fully understand all possible outcomes. A good example of that may well be Toyota's recent troubles.

It could well be that we're still in an immature phase of software development in which humans are totally outclassed in their ability to diagnose the consequences of a robotic system with 100 million lines of code. (Here's just one example.) It will require a second generation of intelligent agents and robots to diagnose themselves and learn, faster than humans can, how code is operating, what its faults are, and good ways to fix.

That's why one might argue that consumer robots coded by mere human beings will be the most dangerous and unpredictable consumer products ever devised.

As a result, early robots will have defects. Accidents will happen. People will be injured, possibly killed. (This has already happend with a dumb industrial robot.)

Apple has great reputation as a company that we admire, love and trust. For Apple to jump into consumer robots too early could risk all that. It's far better for Apple to keep its power dry (as Steve Jobs once said) and use its expertise in artificial intelligence and sensors for the development of autonomous (robotic) cars while other companies take the risk of hurrying consumer robots to market.

In this critical technology area, many companies will rush to market and fail spectacularly. Then government regulations will kick in. Meanwhile, A.I. agents will get smarter about how to diagnose themselves and report. A time will come, call it Phase II, when a new, smarter, more sophisticated age of consumer robots will arrive, perhaps 20 years from now. Apple will likely benefit from holding back until then.

That's why when it comes to consumer robots, it'll pay to be the second or third big company to get into the field, not the first. That's also why, for now, Apple seems to be focusing on the autonomous car as a stepping stone technology. We've heard nothing about any attempt by Apple to compete with Alphabets's Replicant, and that looks to be the smart way to go. For humans.

Next page: the tech news debris for the week of November 9. The iPad revolution has started.

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I just want an AI that helps me program Swift games, be it an app, a robot or a car.


I do think Apple should move into personal robotics. I want an Apple Companion when I’m old and feeble (FWIW I’m half way there. You get to guess which half.)

However you make a good argument. It would makie sense for Apple to wait for the first gen to come out and be horrible, then show everyone else how to do it right. After all this is what they did with the personal computer, music player, smart phone, tablet, and I have to admit smart watch. This is very likely what Apple will do with their car project. This is how they work,. It’s in their DNA to be second but learn from the early mistakes so what they do come out with blows everyone away.


Title should be corrected the THIRD big company unless somebody thinks Honda is some small company. Asimo has such a head start on all of them as far as a human-form-ish Robot that can actually kick a ball, and climb stairs and take commands.  Specialized robots like Roomba will be the interim units until Asimo is ready to bring you a beer, make some food, tuck you in, etc.  Apple unfortunately seems not to show any imagination as of late - still stretching and shrinking the “i” devices to see what will stick; while the drones babble about a car. 
  Meanwhile, a Pulitzer is headed towards Google and the NYT for their amazing 3D virtual reality news story about the airlift of food to Darfur; you’ve all seen it on Charlie Rose by now. Google’s specs are just ONE example of “imagination”; pretty damn simple yet a whole new paradigm for telling a story and the NYT got the jump on what no doubt EVERY news producer will be doing very soon. This could’ve been Apple all over the news, but no.


Apple should do robotics, but it should be manufacturing robots first (manufacturing/assembling all Apple products in the US, or wherever). Then second should be the consumer robots. The manufacturing robots will be the testbed where they can perfect safety, dexterity and batteries (maybe even wireless charging).


@Cudaboy strange, searching for “3D virtual reality news story about the airlift of food to Darfur” returns nothing of interest, maybe just poor search terms…

Lee Dronick

Same here JustCause, I can’t find anything about the movie much less it getting Pulitzer Prize. This is not to say that it isn’t happening, but it isn’t listed on on the 2015 nominees or winners at the Pulitzer website.


ASIMO is not a consumer robot, it’s a technology demonstrator. You can’t go out and buy one in a Honda Robot Store. Therefor it doesn’t count.

dwight silverman

Thanks for the shoutout & compliment, John!

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