Back in the 1960’s cartoons and television shows set in “the distant future” of the 2000s always seemed to include a robot of some kind. The Jetson’s had Rosie, Lost in Space had Will Robinson’s companion warning him of “Danger!” constantly, and many more. Now that we’re beyond the era that most people expected personal robots to exist in, we only really have home robots like the Roomba and nothing as advanced as those in popular culture. That may change in the coming years, but the robots might not resemble what we expected.
In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of “personal assistant” AI such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, or Google Home, but these assistants are certainly not robots and are unable to fill the needs a robot could. While it may be handy to have a device that is able to order your groceries without having to click, touch, or swipe these assistants definitely are not what we expected to have by 2017. We were promised robots and the closest thing we got was a robotic vacuum that could automatically clean your house for you. Luckily there are some companies looking to fill the need for home robotics and provide you with the service you expected.
When you picture a companion robot, most people assume that a robot will have a humanoid body and/or some kind of face that is able to display emotional response. Some robots are designed that way, like Pepper the robot created by Japanese company Softbank. Pepper was originally envisioned as a companion robot for your household, but has grown to be used in many different settings globally. In Belgium, they guide patients through hospital departments, in Canada they’re used as the face greeting you when you enter the bank, in Japan they sell coffee machines, and most recently in the UK, Pepper is being used for community engagement. Pepper is engaging with humans across the globe and people are growing more accustomed to the idea of robots providing them with care.
One such innovation in the area of companion robotics is using these humanoid robots to work with Alzheimer’s patients. People dealing with Alzheimer’s patients all face a similar challenge, having to answer the same basic questions over and over again as the patients attempt to sort out their confusion. This can often be very trying for medical professionals and caretakers and can become emotionally draining. An associate professor at University of Denver has built a robot to help take some of the burden off of Alzheimer’s caretakers with Ryan. Ryan is designed to assist our aging population – particularly those with Alzheimer’s. It recognizes your face, facial expressions, and voice while also being able to converse with you. Ryan can remind memory-compromised patients to take their medication, go to appointments, and have their meals. Its programming can even be adjusted to be more sophisticated or less detailed, depending upon the patient. While the current version of Ryan is immobile and just a torso sitting on a table, DU hopes to advance the robot in the future. However not all companion robots in the future will have humanoid faces and attempt to duplicate human behavior.
As our interest in robotics increases and technology continues to advance, drones grow in popularity and could potentially fill some of our personal robot needs down the road. In the past two years alone, drone sales have continued an upward trend, up 60% in 2016 and should increase 39% before the end of 2017. With personal drone sales on the rise, it is believed that the technology will continue to improve and become an affordable extension to users’ smartphones – doing everything from taking selfies to providing entertainment for individuals. The next direction we could see drones take is providing companion services more like a ‘traditional’ robot and less like a remote-control car.
In many popular video games released in the past decade futuristic settings feature personal unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) assisting characters like the 343 Guilty Spark in Halo or Curie in Fallout 4. While it may seem a bit farfetched now, but this is likely the future of companion robotics. Imagine how great it would be to have a constant companion who could provide you with any sort of service you need – no matter the location. They could light the way for you if it’s too dark or do an Internet search when your hands are preoccupied. As great as it would be to have a personal drone to assist you like how Curie provides medical care, these robots will take a few years to develop to become a reality.
Another recent pop culture example of personal robotics is the hologram companion “Joi” featured in the film Blade Runner 2049. Though unlike the videogame examples listed previously, the hologram companion may be a reality in the near future. Several Japanese companies are attempting to make the dream of personal companions a reality in various robotic forms. Gatebox has created a holographic virtual assistant capable of controlling lights, TVs, and other systems through API integration while also providing weather-related advice to its owner like “remember your umbrella, it looks like rain later.” While Gatebox isn’t as advanced as Joi, it’s certainly making strides in the right direction.
Though we may not see personal companion robots as advanced as Curie or a drone capable of assisting you wherever you go for a while, technology continues to advance daily. As we continue to test the capabilities of robotics and diversify the services robots can provide, we may see a future with more advanced companion robots. Technology is advancing at a blistering rate and while we may seem a long way off from the replicants of Blade Runner 2049, the future is undergoing evolutionary acceleration and generating new innovations every day. By the time your children are running their own households there will be a robot there to clear your plates and do the dishes while you spend time with the grandkids. While nothing is certain when it comes to technology or life, the future certainly looks bright for companion robots.