You’ll Never Have a Robot Best Friend
Stuck between the expensive toys we don’t want and companions they’re still not
I gently pulled the decaying Pleo down off a top shelf in my office.
The once energetic robot toy hadn’t been touched in years. Its battery depleted and rubber skin frayed and split. Still a cute simulacrum of what might be best described as an almost Disney Camarasaurus, its face smiled up at me and I felt a tiny pang.
15 years after Ugobe and inventor Caleb Chung tried to shake up the typically sleepy consumer robotics market and launch their $349 companion robot, Pleo is largely forgotten. It was a big deal back in its day.
Adorable? Yes. Lifelike? Sure. However, it was also an impressive piece of technology with smooth motion, sensors, and early “learning” intelligence that allowed Pleo to slowly reveal its true self to you the more you played with it. To be clear, the $349 robot was not a toy or intended for children. Much like Sony AIBO before it (then on its way to its first decommissioning and years before its more recent rebirth), it was a plaything for adults, people looking for a little G-rated electronic companionship.
How did it end up untouched on my shelf? The way most consumer robotics companion robotic products do. The almost unchangeable rules of robot success in society are at two opposite ends of the market spectrum.
The hard truth
Consumers won't buy robots unless they’re either cheap and dumb or extremely useful. That’s the rule iRobot and its successful Roomba line live by. At the other end are impossibly sophisticated and experimental robots that exist mostly for demonstration (and slowly for enterprise-level utility) like all the robots from Hyundai’s Boston Dynamics.
Boston Dynamics’ Spot and Atlas are — thanks to an ongoing and eye-popping series of YouTube videos in which, in particular, Atlas performs physical stunts most humans can only dream of doing — probably the best-known robots in the world. The company does its…