January 12, 2020
The age of droids is coming faster and faster.
While most of our attention is focused on industrial robots used to replace human workers, various companies are still working on robotic companions for humans.
At the recent CES fair, Samsung has shown some of what it’s been working on, and it’s pretty interesting.
This is really an impressive look into the near future. These food preparation robotic arms, paired with improved AI and maybe stronger motors, could not only make people’s lives more convenient, but also replace a very large number of human jobs in the restaurant and care industry.
But the thing that’s made most waves is probably their “Ballie” bot.
It’s… a ball.
I’m pretty sure balls are the future.
The first thing I notice when I pick up Ballie is how light it is — it’s about the size of a hefty grapefruit, but much less dense. And Ballie’s plastic, scalloped frame gives this otherwise nondescript ball a sense of playfulness, one that might not have been possible if Samsung had gone with the cloth finish it first considered.
I’m told I’m the only non-Samsung staffer to hold Ballie at CES apart from the mayor of Seoul, though I’m not quite sure if that’s true or just PR bluster. Anyway, it doesn’t matter: Ballie may well represent the future of Samsung’s home robot strategy, and it’s only here because a dozen members of the company’s Think Tank Team (TTT) carefully crafted the prototype you might have seen rolling around on-stage during a keynote address.
As I noted in an earlier story, Samsung has been pretty reticent to offer specific details. We still don’t know whether Samsung is making concrete plans to bring Ballie to market, or how much it could cost if and when that happens, but TTT director Leo Jun filled in a few of the gaps for us.
“This is our first step into personal home robots,” Jun told me. “It’s not just a social robot. It’s actually designed to be a companion, and it’s a little bit different in its interpretation but we think this is very believable.”
Of course, “companion” here is more or less a code word for “child substitute for cat ladies and soyboys.” Or, alternatively, a pet substitute for people too lazy to walk a dog or beat up a cat when it scratches their sofa.
Note: you shouldn’t actually beat up your cat when it scratches your sofa. You should just spray it. With oven cleaner. And then get a dog.
But as far as companions go, Samsung is definitely going in the right direction, which is to abandon the humanoid form factor and instead go in a more abstract direction.
Basically, a “C3P0” vs. “R2D2” design decision.
One of these is a beloved character from my childhood. The other is basically the Jar Jar Binks of the 1970s. I think you all know which is which.
Basically, all humanoid robot companions in movies and TV shows are annoying as hell unless they reach a certain level of sophistication.
That level of sophistication is called “being Brent Spiner.”
Barely not annoying. I’d have one in my home.
Alternatively, it’s also fine if they have a nice set of, uh, eyes.
This also works.
But these other ones?
Why did so many companies try to copy this kind of crap with their commercial home robots?
You know what I’m talking about.
Are they trying to trigger people’s shitty movie PTSD?
It’s clear that abstract, non-humanoid companion robots are way more memorable, charismatic and non-annoying than the weird uncanny valley ones with British accents or goofy personalities.
Case in point.
So I fully support Samsung’s ball-shaped robots that do bloops and bleeps instead of speaking, at a deep philosophical level.
Samsung is no stranger to trotting out robots at big trade shows — just last year, it revealed a trio of service-oriented Bots at CES designed to help manage people’s health care routines, guide customers through stores and, uh, purify air. Those were among Samsung’s first attempts at truly “personal” robots, and you can see how the company tried to give them personalities through human-like characteristics — they have big, blinking eyes rendered on round screens, and two of them had “heads” that swiveled around to look at people and objects. Think Eve from Wall-E, and you’re on the right track.
Ballie is different. It is no way human-like, and for Samsung, devising a way to make a robot ball look and feel like something you’d want to talk to was no small feat. As I mentioned, the original plan was to use a cloth-covered body; that idea was shelved at least partially because realized it might not hold up to certain members of the family.
Ball robots are probably going to become an increasingly common sight over the next few years. Just look at these things:
A ball like this can move in any direction over land and water, with minimal numbers of moving parts and thus with great energy efficiency and durability. So it’s only a matter of time before these are used as surveillance drones both indoors and outdoors, replacing security guards and surveillance patrols.
So, yeah. Balls.
Not as good as a dog. But definitely better than a cat. At least it doesn’t scratch your sofa. Or sleep in your clean laundry.