DIGITAL REVOLUTION

Why robots have still not arrived in everyday life

Robots have not become established as helpers in everyday life – apart from vacuum cleaners or or to calculate complex processes in Casino en ligne Suisse. What is the reason for this, and what has to change in order for this to change.

San Francisco They are inconspicuous, quiet and at best obtrusive when they wrestle with the edge of a carpet or get tangled up in power cables. Robotic vacuum cleaners serve in many households. However, science fiction visions in which machines take over all the mundane everyday tasks from people are the only widespread realization, except perhaps for lawn mowing robots.

Roomba is something like the industry’s iPhone: introduced in 2002, the round robot was not the first of its kind. But it was the first to become widely accepted. The Intelligent FloorVac for 200 dollars defined the product category, and Roomba still defends its place today despite many imitators. More than 20 million units have been sold to date, there is no more successful service robot for the home.

Clara Vu has played a significant role in this success. Her first job in 1998 after her mathematics studies at Yale was to write the code that controlled Roomba. Its manufacturer iRobot, a start-up of three graduates of the elite university MIT in Boston, was able to go public thanks to this success. Vu had had enough and moved on.

She took her experiences with her. Today, she is co-founder and CTO of Veo Robotics, a Boston-based start-up that is not concerned with household robots – but is nevertheless concerned with the interaction between humans and machines: Veo has developed a software platform that enables industrial robots and humans to work together in production. These devices are called cobots.

Using sensors, the software creates a 3D map of the work area, enabling factory workers to work close to robots without getting in the way of one of their nimble, heavy arms. Veos software is used in the construction of cars, planes and refrigerators.

Replacement for contract labour
There is much to learn about the robotics industry and its failed hopes. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) expects global sales of household robots to grow by 46 percent annually from 2018 to 2022, to ten billion dollars. In 2018, however, the increase was only 20 percent – the breakthrough, it seems, is always imminent.

In industry, on the other hand, it has long since been achieved: in 2018, two and a half times as many industrial robots were installed as in 2013, 422,000 instead of 178,000. Where robots can replace contract workers, they are being used more and more frequently: clearing robots in retail stores, wiping robots at airports and delivery robots for packages and pizzas on the streets of some US cities.

„When I left iRobot, they said: We’re not a vacuum cleaner manufacturer, we’re a robot manufacturer – so let’s find more work for robots in the home,“ Vu says today. „But what are robots good at? They are strong, fast and can do many repetitions.“ Where these qualities are not needed, robots are often an expensive, unnecessary solution. That’s why she turned to industry.

Vu rolls her eyes when she hears the name Zume. The company from Mountain View in Silicon Valley built robots that topped pizzas. One that squirts tomato sauce on the dough, one that spreads it – and a six-axis robot arm from ABB that pushes the food into the oven.

Meanwhile, Zume pizza is a joke told in Silicon Valley – about the pre-Corona decadence, where even the stupidest ideas were richly funded. At the end of 2018, the pizza robot builder received a 375 million dollar investment from the Softbank Vision Fund, which lost billions by investing in the failed office rental company WeWork or Uber later.

Things look bad for Zume as well: The start-up company recently laid off half its employees and now wants to reinvent itself as a producer of face masks and sustainable packaging – the word pizza has been removed from the name. „People are pretty good at making their own pizza,“ says Vu. „You don’t need a robot arm with six flexible joints to do it.“

If one follows this logic, the robot as a human companion and helper in everyday life is not only futuristic, but in many areas of application a nonsensical idea.

No other product stood for the robotic enthusiasm of recent years like Pepper, the friendly white assistant with the tablet torso. When Softbank Robotics launched it in 2015, the first 1000 copies were sold out in a minute. For a while it rolled across the stage at every technology event or welcomed guests in the atrium. According to its creators, it is supposed to „help people enjoy their lives“. However, the device developed in France never progressed beyond its status as a gimmick or information pillar.

High investments in hardware
Paolo Pirjanian also used to work at iRobot. When the Roomba manufacturer sucked in his company Evolution Robotics, which produced the Mint wiping robot, in 2012, the Iranian-born Pirjanian became chief technology officer there. Three years later, he left to start his own company: Embodied, which received investments from Amazon and Toyota and launched its first product a few months ago.

Moxie is a small, blue robot with big green eyes that could have come out of a Pixar movie. It was designed by the Swiss Yves Behar, who has worked for Apple, Samsung and Prada and is considered one of the world’s leading industrial designers.

Moxie’s head is drop-shaped and, like the eyes, oversized – all according to the childlike scheme. It was launched three months ago and is said to cost $1500.

„We want to improve the emotional quotient of children,“ says its inventor. Among those interested are schools, clinics and parents of children with autistic behavior. If Moxie becomes a success in the USA, Embodied plans to expand into other markets starting next year.

This is not a matter of course. „I knew robotics was a tough business for founders,“ says the former refugee who grew up in Denmark and earned his doctorate in robotics in Aalborg. You have to develop special hardware, software and electronics, which requires a lot of capital. When he tried to raise money for Evolution during the 2008 financial crisis, „I was practically back on the floor as soon as investors heard robotics,“ he says.

Over the past five years, he says, this has slowly changed. Investors are bolder today, he says, because some robot companies have made big exits in the meantime – Amazon’s $775 million acquisition of warehouse robot maker Kiva Systems has opened a door, although like most other success stories, they come from the industry.

Pirjanian sees the mistakes in his own industry: „Many consumer products are too expensive, or their benefits are unclear,“ says the founder. Some start-ups would have attracted a lot of venture capital and developed hyped products, but these would never have reached the mass market.

Anki, for example. The San Francisco start-up, co-founded by the South Tyrolean Hanns Tappeiner, raised 200 million dollars to develop cute, tractor-shaped toy robots with Pixar faces. Although the company proudly declared in 2018 that it had sold more than 1.5 million robots since 2013, it went bankrupt in 2019. Or Jibo, a robot for families, which started in 2014 with a crowdfunding campaign and was discontinued three years later.

„But the most obvious example is Pepper – a product with no clear purpose,“ says Pirjanian. This is what distinguishes him from Roomba. Even before its market launch, the traditional company Electrolux offered a suction robot for 2000 dollars, but hardly ever sold one. „Three things are important in robots for private individuals,“ says the founder. „The price, the price and the price.“

Humanoids in the uncanny valley
But how does Moxie fit in? A $1,500 robot for kids, isn’t that Anki 2.0, only more expensive? „Moxie is not a toy,“ says Pirjanian. „If he were a toy, he would fail.“ The drop head seeks eye contact, recognizes facial expressions and reacts accordingly. Moxie provides value by supporting a child’s development.

His big green eyes and mouth reflect his mood, and he is intelligent enough to use his somewhat tinny voice to have conversations and play games instead of responding to a small number of commands. „Just giving a robot a moving mouth is a huge responsibility,“ says Pirjanian. If the eyes and mouth are not precisely aligned, a robot will look „scary and creepy“.

Pirjanian says that numerous software and hardware problems had to be solved to program Moxie in a cute way. A $1500 robot that scares kids would be the disaster for Pirjanian’s company.

The problem of making robots human-like even has a name: „Uncanny Valley“. The Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori put forward the hypothesis that the acceptance of robots does not increase with their increasing human resemblance, but runs parabolically, i.e. they first have to go through a long valley.

Vacuum cleaners or industrial robots did not frighten people because they did not have any humanoid appearance. Perfect images of people were also presumably not possible because they were authentic. Robots that had only a rudimentary command of human speech, facial expressions or gestures, on the other hand, populated the eerie valley because, although they remind us of humans, their strange behavior is disturbing.

„This is why Pepper is not very interactive for an interactive robot,“ says Pirjanian. The wrong eyes, communication via a touch screen – all of these things prevent the white soft-bank robot from giving its interlocutors a dull feeling. But he is not particularly useful either.

Although Vu and Pirjanian have been working on very different projects since their time at iRobot, they have one thing in common: They want to make robots useful and inspire confidence – whether it’s a large gripper arm or a small companion.