You don’t have to look far to find examples of pop culture’s love affair with robots. From movies like Star Wars, The Terminator, and Wall-E to TV shows such as The Jetsons and Futurama, examples of computers with human characteristics abound in the entertainment world.
Robots For Everyone?
When you consider the ubiquity of robots in our culture,it becomes even more curious that they’ve failed to capture the consumer’s attention in a meaningful way. We’re all familiar with the idea of robots, but no one seems particularly eager to have them as a part of their daily life, in their home or workspace. That could be largely due to the price point of robots. After all, when you compare their cost to the most popular consumer personal computers, the difference his stark. However, we have seen some affordable iterations with with digital assistants like Alexa and Siri. These are similar to robots in that these forms of hardware seem to “think for themselves.” similar to wearables and smart home gadgets. But for some reason, consumers on the whole haven’t been keen to embrace human-like hardware with tech-like functionality. It’s worth asking why that is, and if that’s going to change any time soon.
Robotics Have Changed Our Lives
Part of the reason for our collective reluctance to embrace robots as a consumer good is that we don’t really see how prevalent robots already are in our lives. As Matt Mason, Professor of Computer Science and Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, put it, “Robots do surgery. Robots have driven down the price of consumer goods. The reason that you have a computer in your pocket is because of robotics in manufacturing. If you go through a semiconductor fab, you’ll find dozens or hundreds of robots working…People look at those technologies and don’t see robots, so they don’t see that robotics have changed their lives.”
Can We Be Converted?
Another reason for this slow takeup may be our collective reluctance to see technology anthropomorphized, or made human. We like to believe that for the most part we are in control of our technology, and we fail to see all the ways it controls us. If technology takes on a human form, we might get uneasy with the idea that a robot may not only take our job, but be more compelling to our partner or funny to our friends, as well. So we avoid them save for their appearance in entertainment and movies.
However, as technology progresses and becomes more responsive to human needs and quirks, we are seeing more robotic technology that might woo consumers into believers. For example, at the most recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the Bosch-funded startup Kuri was unveiled. As TechCrunch described, “Kuri responds to voice input and in this way is similar to other devices like Google Home or Amazon Echo. But she responds with robot noises, lights and blinking motions. She was built to be a companion and an assistant.” In other words, Kuri might have just the right amount of responsiveness without being threatening.
Another major robot display at CES was a trio of robots that made humans coffee and tea. Three different robot makers – Bosch, Aubo, and Denso – had display stands mostly designed to dazzle guests with a novel service, but they were also intended to show the capabilities of these robots. As a writer for CNET put it, “The Bosch robot showcased a projected interface for people to interact with robots. The Aubo robot was all about demonstrating the intricate movements a large robot arm is capable of. And the Denso robot showed how it can make nuanced movements as well as synchronize its two arms.”
Perhaps the key to persuading consumers to be as enthusiastic about robots as they are about other forms of personal technology is to make them feel like they are in control. No one wants to be replaced by a robot, and the kinds of robots we see in popular culture over the years have perhaps created the idea that that outcome is entirely possible, if not likely. If innovators and manufacturers can create robots that are helpful yet non-threatening to humans, they might get more consumer buy-in.
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