Robots that play chess, provide directions, go out for groceries—these are the helpful robots on display at this year’s CES tech trade show in Las Vegas. And while they don’t resemble humans, exactly, many are designed to accomplish their tasks with digital eyes, turning heads, waving arms and grabbing hands.
“We’re on the cusp of a robotic moment,” said J.P. Gownder, a robotics-focused senior analyst and vice president at the Forrester research firm. Not only are robots developing physical skills necessary to carry out domestic tasks, they’re also gaining emotional appeal so that humans accept them as a companion, not just an appliance.
While that quintessential humanoid domestic servant may yet be 20 years away, he said, what’s on display at the show is “a significant step toward the realization of robots that have been in our popular culture for 80 years or so.”
The C-3PO model—named after the chatty Star Wars droid—is a single, humanlike robot that is good at many different things. “The robots we’re seeing at CES are good at specific tasks instead of a little bit of everything,” he said. But many developers focusing on individual skills could bring down costs for robotics technologies overall.
One of the big themes of CES 2017 is building intelligence into everyday objects, like ovens, refrigerators and other appliances. While a robot, in the end, may just be another device, the fact that it is designed to feel more like a companion will pay off, Mr. Gownder said.
“Having these humanlike features communicates something primal to the user, and when done properly it can make robots more useful and better because we have a connection to them.”
Here are a few robots at CES that demonstrate both skills and charm:
MoRo, a human-size assistant robot
MoRo is designed to run errands indoors and outdoors, as long as it isn’t raining. It has two six-joint arms with three fingers at each end. The arms move up and down its sides so it can grab things on the ground or from a not-too-high shelf. Its maker, Beijing Ewaybot Technology LLC, says it uses a mixture of cameras, sensors and algorithms to apply the correct amount of force for picking up either a piece of tissue or a can. Voice controlled—and capable of talking back—it stands nearly 4 feet tall and weighs 77 pounds. MoRo is set to go on sale in May for $30,000.
ITRI’s chess-playing Intelligent Vision System robot
A robot that can play chess with humans while also pouring them a cup of coffee: That is what research lab ITRI Taiwan brought to CES to demonstrate its Intelligent Vision System. Cameras help the robot recognize the chess pieces and cups, and perceive depth so that it can reach for the right piece without knocking over another, or pick up the coffee without tipping it. ITRI says it plans to license its technology, so while you may see these sort of abilities in other robots, you won’t be able to buy a robotic chess partner from the lab itself.
Yumii Cutii, a robot friend for seniors
The Cutii is built to “make you feel good,” says Yumii, the French startup making the robot. It is designed to help senior citizens continue living at home instead of going into an eldercare facility. Its LCD-screen head can bob up and down, to show off its smiling face and host video calls from friends, family and doctors. It can recognize the faces of its human companions. Since it is voice controlled, it can ask them if they want to take part in pre-determined activities like visiting a museum or taking a yoga class—then listen for a response.
Hease Robotics Heasy hospitality robot
Need to find your way around a hotel resort? Looking for a specific item in a mall? Trying to find departure times at an airport? Heasy is a robot built to do all of that, and provide any other information you might need. It is a robot made for commercial use, and it offers a bit of personality thanks to a swiveling pair of eyes. Hease, the French startup behind it, calls Heasy a “robot as a service.” It is set to go on sale to businesses later this year.
Korean electronics giant LG Electronics Inc. showed off a similar robot of its own at CES. The aptly named Airport Guide Robot is set to arrive in Seoul’s Incheon International Airport later this year. When it does, it’ll be able to answer questions in English, Chinese, Japanese and Korean. It can scan a passenger’s ticket to offer boarding times and gate locations, and directions inside of the airport, with estimated distances and walking times. If needed, it can escort lost or late travelers to their gates, LG said.