Dreaming of a Robot Companion? It’s Closer to Reality Than You Think
With popular images of robot companions, like Rosie from “The Jetsons” or Samantha from “Her,” becoming a ubiquitous part of our culture, most of us probably dream of having one ourselves. Owning an artificial being to help us combat loneliness or manage our lives seems to be a scene from a movie.
But this is closer to reality than we might think. It’s not just a hypothetical situation thought up by writers and film makers. Robot companions, or artificial beings designed and programmed to assist and emotionally connect with humans, have arrived on the market. Although this technology is not as widespread as the smartphone yet, with advancement of their functionality and proof of their usefulness, sales will likely rise. People will begin to see why including a robot as a part of their lives will benefit them and be a norm of our future society.
Human history has a long past of developing robots for specific functions and thinking about their context in our world. Creating robots to solve problems from the complex—like surgical robots—to the simple—like robotic pets—has put robots into the realm of reality. Examining the history of robot development reveals important truths about where we are now and where we are going.
Squee and Shakey
Before seamless robots roamed the Earth, engineers made significant breakthroughs in the science of giving a machine commands and a mind to control itself. The first robot to perform a useful task successfully was called Squee: The Robot Squirrel. Built in 1951 by computer pioneer Edmund Berkeley, Squee hunted for nuts (tennis balls) illuminated by light and took them back to his nest. He only worked in dark rooms and was only 75% reliable, but he was the first to accomplish a task without the physical help of a human, and paved the way for finessing the movements of robots.
Shakey the Robot is a distant cousin of Squee born in 1970. He was the first mobile robot to operate using artificial intelligence. Even though he only moved at two meters per hour, he could perceive his surroundings, rearrange simple objects and perform tasks with planning. His innovations, developed by SRI International, greatly influenced modern robotics and methods in AI. He used a very basic form of machine learning by using intermediate level actions to string the low-level simple actions together. The highest level program could make plans to achieve a user-input goal.
Today, we’ve come a long way from Squee and Shakey. In fact, it is estimated that nearly 100 million consumer robots will be sold in the coming years, with one in 10 Americans having one in their homes by 2020. While the term “consumer robot” includes household chore robots, like vacuum cleaners, and toy or educational robots, the idea of robots in more sentient forms is becoming pervasive. We won’t just use robots to mow the lawn or entertain the kids. We will use robots to keep track of our schedule, order dinner or organize a party, all with a friendly demeanor.
This is a trend that has been slowly gaining traction. A 2004 survey revealed that only 40% of people were in favor of the idea of an in-home companion robot, with the majority viewing them as assistants and machines that automate mundane and irksome tasks. Four years later, a 2008 survey showed more people were becoming comfortable with a robot who lived in the house, but many still viewed it only as a machine, not a family member. The same survey showed a generational gap in how robots are viewed, indicating that as younger people become the majority of the population, robots will more easily fit the role of companion in the home.
As developments in AI continue, robots that serve many purposes will be so streamlined, their presence will be natural rather than reminiscent of science fiction. Robots currently serving as in-home companions include robotic pets, caretakers and personal assistants. The next wave of companionship offered by an artificial being is to wrap all these qualities into one. Having a robot that communicates like a human, but has the efficiency and accuracy for managing your life is the huge advantage to effortlessly integrating technology into our routines.
As robots, like Jibo, start to make sense to the average consumer, our culture will become more comfortable with the idea of having a robot companion and everyone will be adopting one into their family.