LAS VEGAS—If there’s one thing that CES, the tech world’s premiere trade show, makes clear year after year, it’s that consumer-facing robots aren’t even close to being ready for prime time. Even as artificially intelligent software gets smarter—with Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa inhabiting nearly every electronic device imaginable at the conference this year—robots that are designed to move around a house or a store and perform tasks that a person would otherwise do are often comically bad.
Take what happened at LG’s showcase event on Monday, when the South Korean electronics-maker’s U.S. head of marketing, David VanderWaal, tried to demo Cloi, the company’s new home-assistant robot. Just a little bigger than a drip coffee maker, Cloi is supposed to sit on a countertop. Its head swivels and nods as it talks, but the machine doesn’t have wheels or arms. Cloi is a conversational social robot that’s supposed to help you organize your life.
On stage, VanderWaal asked Cloi when his laundry would be finished—a relatively simple query meant to demonstrate exactly the kind of smart-home integration LG is hoping to sell. In response, Cloi fell embarrassingly silent:
VanderWaal: “Cloi, am I ready on my washing cycle?”
VanderWaal: “Even robots have bad days. So if we had the washing cycle ready to go, then the dryer could also be synced up and find out we also have chicken in the refrigerator and its expiring in three days. It looks like we should use the chicken. Cloi, are you talking to me yet, what recipes could I make with chicken?”
Cloi: [not a word]
A robot that was supposed to be a conduit between human needs and other machines just didn’t work. Likewise, when I went to visit Pepper, the humanoid made by the Japanese technology company SoftBank, the demonstration didn’t quite work as planned, either.
Pepper stands about four-feet tall with a tablet mounted to its chest and has wheels where its legs should be. And with its five-fingered hands, two arms, hourglass figure, and childlike voice, the robot is also bizarrely lifelike. This wasn’t the first time I’ve met Pepper. Over the past three years, I’ve seen the Android dance at conferences, be pestered by curious children at the mall, stand powered off at the airport, and be displayed at CES the year before. The vision for Pepper in the United States, at least according to its handlers at CES, is that the robot will sit in the front of a store or a hotel lobby to answer questions, share promotions, or beckon people to come in and take a look around. On SoftBank’s website for Pepper, though, the company boasts that the robot’s “number one quality is his ability to perceive emotions” and that its already living with some families in Japan.
This year, Pepper was supposed to be better both at listening and at facial recognition. The facial recognition worked. Pepper took an unflattering photo of me when I walked in and remembered my face to say goodbye when I walked out. But it couldn’t understand my name. It heard “Rosa” when I said “April,” and when I said that was wrong, it didn’t understand that either. I had to manually type my name on the touch screen, which honestly isn’t something I would ever waste my time doing in a store. Still, more than 100 Peppers are already working across the United States at places like Kohl’s department stores, Sprint stores, the Oakland, California, airport, and even a Marriot hotel.
For the demo, SoftBank had lined up four Peppers that were all programed for different customer service experiences. The one that was programmed for the hotel asked whether I was interested in a promotion for a water park, which I said I wasn’t. It played the promotion anyway. The Pepper for the Sprint store wasn’t programmed to answer questions about different kinds of phones for sale, nor was it programmed to take my name to be added to the queue for customer assistance. One of the Peppers was having a difficult time turning on at all.
I left wondering if the main use of the humanoid robot at this point was a last-ditch effort to court people back into retail stores as online shopping continues to grow. But since they cost about $25,000 a pop, you might as well hire a human to work part-time instead.
There was also Kuri, a robot from Mayfield Robotics, a division of Bosch, that returned to CES again after making its debut last year. Kuri, like Cloi from LG, is supposed to live at home with you. Kuri doesn’t do much, but it’s not designed to. This little knee-height rover lacks arms and legs, but like Cloi has a head that swivels and bobs when you interact with it and responds to voice commands. Kuri can record video and audio, so if someone enters your house, Kuri might capture them. It can play podcasts and music out of its speakers, and even learn to navigate your house. It has a little personality, and kids might learn to love it like a pet. At this point, the robot mostly seems like a glorified combination security camera and smart speaker on wheels.
The robots I saw at CES this year that were made for interacting with people either didn’t work or were kind of pointless. The automated machines that did work and appeared to have intrinsic value were ones that didn’t try to charm. The robotic vacuums, autonomous drones, and robotic arms used in factories on display all appeared to do what they’re supposed to do. And as our kitchen and living room appliances all get smarter, and we find ourselves talking more and more to inanimate objects that can do as we command, perhaps we should prepare ourselves more for a future like Star Trek, where you can talk to the walls to order a cup of Earl Grey or make a phone call (remember, there’s only one Data). The Star Wars vision of a C3PO android that can pick things up, help you on a journey, and be fluent in 6 million forms of communication still feels light-years away.