Robots have a long track record of generating buzz, but not quite so much in the way of results.
Interest in robots as a novelty remains high; there is no doubt that people think they’re neat. But in terms of actual experiences of robots in real life, the reviews are much more mixed. Consumers will complain that they find the experience of interacting with a robot disconcerting or intimidating in some cases, or note that interacting with robots is more like playing with a toy than connecting with a useful tool.
Until very recently, robots were relegated to a “niche within a niche” status because of two common errors robotics companies tend to make in attempting to bring a robot to the market, Gal Goren, CEO of robotics company Temi, told Karen Webster in a recent conversation.
The first, he noted, is attempting to focus a robot’s use entirely on consumers in their homes, despite the fact that consumer homes are incredibly hard to navigate because they tend to have features like narrow staircases, sunken living rooms, pets, children and idiosyncratic furniture layouts. Temi’s first robot assistant was aimed for use in the home, which the company quickly realized was challenging to work in. Broadening its robot assistant for use in spaces like stores, hospitals and offices was comparatively easy.
The second mistake, he noted, is attempting to make a robot appear “human” to make people feel more comfortable. That would be a good idea but for the fact that the technology isn’t quite there yet, and so what ends being created is something that looks kind of human and is thus more disconcerting than comforting to most people. More importantly, he noted, it sets the users up for immediate disappointment because the first thing they notice is how not human enough it is.
“It's a little bit intimidating to have this kind of human-like figure around you, and this is also something that we took into consideration when we designed Temi,” Goren said. “Our idea was to make it look like a beautiful piece of art that you want to have in your living room or in the lobby of a hotel instead of a human-like shape that immediately disappoints you because you expect something more than it is technologically capable of giving.”
Now, robots are being called upon to help amid the global pandemic. The goal, he noted, isn’t to remove human beings from the world of retail or healthcare. But what robots can do — and are already doing — is help create cleaner, safer human interactions by adding a digital intermediary to the process.
What A Robot Can Do
The Temi robot, Goren noted, is a fairly simple and sleek design, roughly the height of a 6-year-old child with a screen for a “face,” a small shelf on its back and a wheeled bottom. The idea behind Temi is pretty simple: versatility. It’s an open-sourced Android device, so any user can custom program it to whatever need they may have, and the machine will perform accordingly.
Those uses thus far have been very broad. In one office building, Goren noted, Temi has been linked to the vending machines so that workers can buy their snacks, and they can be retrieved and delivered by Temi. In restaurants, Temi can confirm reservations and guide diners to their tables. In hotels, Temi can check-in customers, guide them to their rooms and offer them recommendations on local dining or attractions.
The robot doesn’t look human, he noted, but the interactions are designed to have a human feel, particularly because Temi comes embedded with Alexa (or whatever voice assistant is more regionally appropriate) and feels highly familiar to a customer. That makes them more comfortable talking to Temi and widening the pool of services, including buying things directly with their voice because they’ve done it before, and the only difference is the hardware is more responsive and can move with them.
That mobility, he noted, is also what makes Temi applicable to serious problems in some contexts, like in hospitals, where the majority of injuries occur when patients wake up and attempt to get out of bed.
“So today, we have hospitals that have smart devices attached to the bed that can sense five minutes before a patient is going to wake up,” Goren said. “That device connects to Temi, which then arrives in the room while the patient is getting up and gives instructions like don’t get out of bed until the nurse arrives. Or it can open a video stream of the nurse directly to the patient.”
The services, he said, are complementary and ultimately offer a more personalized interaction without requiring added manpower.
The Robotics Enabled Futures
There is often a concern that robots like Temi are coming to replace human workers, which Goren noted is a bit off the mark. In industrial robotics, automating and replacing human beings is very much something that is simply baked in.
In personal robotics, the situation is a little more complicated and nuanced. The robot doesn’t replace the nurse on rounds, the retail clerk in a store, or the server in a restaurant. It actually can’t, Goren told Webster, and that isn’t what the robots are designed to do.
The goal, he said, is simply to distribute the work smarter and more efficiently so that robots are doing things that digitize well, like answering questions, delivering small items, opening up connection points and managing transactions. That doesn’t replace human workers; it frees them up to do the kinds of direct “hands-on” services that human workers are necessary for, enabling the provision of improved service for more patrons.
As of 2020, he noted, providing for more patrons has become more acute that ever and has pushed robotics into the mainstream in ways that could not have been anticipated a year ago. Service robots aren’t taking over the market overnight, but so far, the pace of adoption has become faster.
“Like any kind of new technology, it takes time to educate the market and for it to penetrate,” he said. “I tend to think 2020 and the post-COVID-19 world will be the first milestone in that direction. And I have no doubt that 2021 will be critical in the field of service robots because companies that capture and blend the robotics market with others in 2020 and 2021 will emerge as market leaders later.”