CES 2017: The future of home robotics is getting closer

The science fiction of the 20th century often featured domestic robots, and it looks like we're finally getting close to making that a reality.

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Credit: IDG

In Clifford Simak’s 1944 science fiction story “The Huddling,” a man whose every need is fulfilled by his robotic house finds himself suffering from an increasing case of agoraphobia as it becomes less and less necessary for him to leave his home.

While we’re not quite at that point, I couldn’t help thinking of that story when I sat in today’s LG press conference where the company introduced a variety of impressive robot home (and airport) helpers.

David Vanderwall, VP of marketing for LG, introduced a variety of smart products (under the brand name of SmartThinQ) that sounded as though they might eventually know their users better than the users know themselves. He talked about clothes washers that would add rinse cycles if they detected additional dust; air conditioners that would adjust for daily behavior patterns (although he didn’t say what might happen if one family member liked things warm and another liked things cool); and smart refrigerators (called the Smart InstaView Door-in-Door) that will also adjust for lifestyle patterns, let you know if that carton of leftover takeout food has started to become a scientific experiment, and include a full HD, 29-inch display that will let you leave notes, look up recipes, stream music, and (like last year) see what’s going on inside the fridge. 

However, the product that most reminded me of an old-time science-fiction story is the Hub robot (photo above). Paired with Amazon’s Alexa voice-command system, the Hub (which will come in a regular and mini version) will not only play your music, tell you the weather and remind you who was the 35th President of the U.S., but will turn on your air conditioner and track your recipes. And it won't be alone; a much larger version is being prepared as a rolling airport assistant. (“Your gate is five feet away. You have just missed your connection. Have a good day!”)

I couldn't help observing that the Hub robots -- and a similar (although non-Alexa) robotic assistant called Kuri introduced later this morning by Bosch -- all seem to have the same approximate design: roundish, stark white, with two “eyes” to indicate a neutrally friendly face. I’ve noticed this in previous robotic companions as well; I can’t wait until, once these become more common, somebody comes up with the “revolutionary” idea of making them different colors and shapes. A green alien might be nice…

There was no indication when these robotic assistants and smart home products would be ready or how much they would cost; sometime in 2017 was the only answer I've gotten thus far.

One last thought: Most of the videos being shown by these companies show healthy people using their new companions to make their lives better while they do healthy things like biking, walking with sweethearts in the park, discussing important things with associates at work, etc. With any luck, that will be our future rather than that of Simak’s protagonist, whose personal technology knows that it might be psychologically damaging to its owner to leave his house -- and makes sure he doesn't.

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