There were a ton of robots at CES 2020: Here's what that means
Before attending CES 2020 in Las Vegas last week, I'd had little to no hands-on experience with robots. If anything, I was a little worried about them after writing about the Boston Dynamics products. Even though the bots could do a lot of good, movies like I, Robot and shows like Black Mirror are hard to shake. I thought I would've been more skeptical at CES, but the bots on the show floor quickly won me over.
I met Lovot at CES Unveiled, a media event on the first night of the show. The little penguin-like robots were milling about and had drawn a crowd. I knelt down to grab a photo and before I knew it, one of the Lovot representatives had placed a bot named Max in my arms. As Max cooed and "blinked" its big eyes up at me, the representative told me that the bot's only purpose was to love humans. I was surprised at how easy it was to forget that Max wasn't a real creature. I eventually had to part with Max, but he wasn't the last cute (and questionably sentient) robot I would see that week.
Of the robots I encountered at CES 2020, most were geared (pun intended?) towards one or a blend of three big themes: service, education, and emotional care or support. More than a few of them were packaged to be as cute as possible. This could be a way to make us forget that they're robots, like what happened when I encountered Lovot.
Read more: The five biggest tech trends from CES 2020
Robots in the classroom
I remember how cool it was when we started to use laptops on a frequent basis in school. CES 2020 showed that robotics are also making their way into the classroom. These educational robots will likely seem more like toys at first -- they're colorful, cute, accessible and interactive -- so kids will be learning without knowing it.
The robots I saw at CES varied from teaching kids foreign languages to coding languages and other STEM skills. Emys, a robot meant to teach English to children ages 3-9, spoke with a child-like voice, reacted to being petted and could make human sounds like sneezing and coughing. I could see how a child would respond better to this than perhaps a more generic voice like those used by Google or Siri.
It's important to keep an eye on the marketing and presentation of these toys: Keeping the devices gender neutral is important to keep girls who show an early interest in STEM from dropping out later on.
Emotional support robots
Using robots to help with stress, loneliness or other emotions seems to be one of the latest trends in digital health. It might seem strange to turn to a robot to meet our emotional needs, but we're not that far away already. Just think of all the different ways we use our phones for telehealth and teletherapy.
In addition to Lovot, CES gave us Jennie, an animatronic dog from Tombot. Jennie was designed as a companion for seniors with dementia, but Tombot has also received orders from parents of children with autism and people with PTSD.
Some of these robots crossed into services, like the Bomy bots and Loro. Robocare brought along Bomy I and Bomy II, two bots described as "personal cognitive trainers" meant to improve brain function. Bomy I and II are meant to help people with dementia by providing daily home care with alarms and brain training.
Read More: The most important health devices to know about from CES 2020
In the similar way that Bomy II might give someone more independence, Loro works the same way. You can attach Loro to a wheelchair or bedside. It works with an app and includes hands-free and eye-tracking tech. Being able to take care of yourself can have a huge bearing on your emotional well-being, the company says.
Robots at your service
We were probably more prepared for robots to be incorporated into aspects of service, and CES exhibitors didn't forget to bring their most helpful robots along. Last year, Panasonic and Toyota were working on robot aids to help wheelchair users at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. And CES 2020 showed that this trend is only going to continue.
At Delta Air Line's keynote, the CEO talked about the Guardian XO, an exoskeleton to help freight workers load cargo. Aitheon also showed off a robotic arm that could come in handy in a warehouse. On a smaller scale, Charmin's robot keeps it simple and brings you toilet paper.
Bots such as Pollen Robotics' Reachy and Ubtech's Cruzr could translate easily to customer-service oriented arenas. The robots have novel aspects, like how Cruzr has some slick dance moves (though "the robot" wasn't performed for me at CES) and Reachy can play tic-tac-toe. These comforting aspects can make the robots easier to assimilate into life as we know it.
Final nuts and bolts
At CES 2020 Trends to Watch presentation, Lesley Rohrbaugh, director of research for the Consumer Technology Association, said that there's now a robot for every task. The usefulness of a robot, however, depends on its interaction with a human. So in addition to how people respond to these robots, it's also important to take price into the equation.
While many of the robots are meant to make life easier, more accessible, their price tags won't be for the average family. Not everyone can drop $450 for a Jennie dog, let alone a few thousand for a Lovot.
Robots are gaining traction at a unique moment, as digital assistants have already become part of our daily lives. Giving robots "personality quirks" can make us forget, however fleetingly, that we're dealing with a machine and not another living thing. Given our current circumstances -- our need for automation, the way we feel lost without our phones and our practically euphoric response to social media notifications -- it likely won't take much wooing for the world to fall in love with robots.