When most people think of robots, they either think of hulking Terminators or the types of dumb industrial robots taking part in a future robot uprising. But there’s another class of robot that’s also gaining traction – social robots that cost less than $1,000 and are designed for the home. They are more WALL-E than Terminator, and are meant to be personal companions and even “one of the family.”

For all the stories about the perils of artificial intelligence, these machines are strangely disarming. First of all, some of them – such as the new Buddy companion robot from French robotics firm Blue Frog Robotics – look like they’ve had a cartoon smiley face painted on them. Buddy whisks around on wheels and casters while JIBO, another social robot option, swivels harmlessly on your desk or floor. They don’t have arms or legs and are supposed to read stories to your kids or snap photos of the family. And they aren’t much more intelligent than the apps on your smartphone or smartwatch, so you don’t have to worry about the perils of superintelligence.

The main selling point of these social robots is that they can perform many of the tasks – reminding you of important events on your schedule, monitoring the home, reading back phone messages, taking photos, providing suggestions for recipes – that people typically outsource to their different digital devices. Think of the social robot as one part iPhone, one part Dropcam, and one part Nest, all connected by a tablet device that recognizes faces and voices. In the case of Buddy, the tablet is actually the “face” of the robot.

What’s really genius about these bots is not the technology inside them – it’s the idea that these social robots are destined to become part of the “connected home.” Just a few years ago, the idea of the Internet of Things for the home still sounded fantastic and futuristic – now it doesn’t strike people as so absurd that smoke alarms and thermostats are hooked up to the Internet. So, if we’re busy hooking up our home to the Internet, why not a robot as well?

Plus, there’s the price point to consider. For $499, you can get a high-end tablet or smartphone. For just a few hundred bucks more, you can get a social robot for the home. For example, the Buddy will retail for $649 (but comes with an early bird special of $549 if you buy it on Indiegogo). The JIBO Home Edition, another social robot option, will retail for $749 on pre-order.

Of course, there’s room to be skeptical about these social robots for the home. For one, just consider the privacy aspects of having robots wandering around your home, snapping photos of you and your loved ones, and then – potentially – having those photos shared with the wrong people on the Internet. Or, consider the prospect of having a nefarious outsider hacker inside your home and downloading personal information from your robots.

And finally, there’s the very real notion that these bots will never live up to their initial expectations.


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