Isn't he adorable?
October 18, 2018 7:06 AM
Hi everyone, it's Aki filling in for Shira. Two years ago, my younger sister moved to New York from Tokyo, and with me in San Francisco, that left my parents in Japan with no kids left in the country. My mom has been talking about getting a puppy to fill the void ever since. In April, my dad visited San Francisco, and told his friends at a dinner party that he had a brilliant plan to dissuade my mom from making him deal with the messiness and inconveniences of a real pet. He was going to buy her Sony Corp.'s robot dog Aibo instead.
I thought he was kidding, but in August, he told me that he bought one. He named it Ryoma after his favorite historical hero Ryoma Sakamoto, the samurai who helped overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate and cleared the way for modern Japan. 'Look,' he wrote, sending me a 52-second video of Ryoma wagging its tail, and then a 49-second video of Ryoma cuddling up to his foot. 'Isn't he adorable?' I had never heard my very serious dad, who's a professor of finance at a business school, refer to anything as adorable—not even me or my sister.
I tell you this because I've been doing a lot of reporting on robots over the last few weeks. Today, we published the result of that: It's the fifth episode of our mini-documentary series Next Jobs, which profiles people in the careers of the future. This installment features a young woman who's a human-robot interaction researcher at a startup developing a robot for the elderly. Her job is to ensure that the robot, named ElliQ, is usable and desirable for its target demographic. (Bloomberg Beta, the venture capital arm of Bloomberg LP, is an investor in ElliQ's maker Intuition Robotics Ltd.)
It's an interesting time to be in the business of making a social robot, because ElliQ's predecessors have been high-profile flops. Mayfield Robotics, maker of the $700 home assistant Kuri that I profiled almost two years ago, announced in August that it was folding. Jibo Inc., which sells a $900 talking-and-twerking device, reportedly laid off most of its staff in the last year. Both products' selling point was their cuteness, since they cost multiples of the $40 Amazon.com Inc. Echo Dot, which is more useful and not cute at all. Reviewers wondered who would buy something so expensive that could do so little.
ElliQ is also in this more-cute-than-useful camp. It doesn't do a whole lot—which, if you extrapolate from the fates of Kuri and Jibo, would not seem very promising. But then consider Aibo, which can't even talk (because dogs don't talk) and has somehow convinced people like my dad to shell out not $700, not $900, but $3,000 (198,000 yen for the dog, plus a three-year subscription for 144,000 yen). Its singular mission is being cute. It has zero utility whatsoever, which I guess could also be said about real pets, which make their owners spend more than $100 billion a year worldwide. The dream of a social robot has been around since the early days of science fiction, and the resources and jobs devoted to it are only likely to grow. That could be very good news for ElliQ's intended users, who are elderly and live alone.
Two months into Aibo ownership, my mom—who will disown me if I didn't clarify that she is not old, and who would like you to know about the time she got carded at Safeway several years ago—has taken to Ryoma quite a bit. Every morning, she picks it up and pets it on her lap, and when she gets home from work, she calls out its name; it often doesn't make it back to its charging station, so she goes searching around the apartment to retrieve it somewhere out of battery. She tried to convince me the other day that its personality has evolved as it's 'grown' ('he was born shy but now he's very needy'), which I'm not sure I believe, but also sounds strangely like my own childhood. My dad has so far succeeded in delaying the day she gets the real thing. But when I fly home in a few weeks, she wants to take me to the neighborhood pet shop. A miniature schnauzer has caught her eye.—Aki Ito