This article originally appeared in the February/March 2018 issue of WiFi HiFi Magazine.
Smart speakers are officially a full-blown phenomenon. Next up, robot butlers.
No, seriously. The path from one to the other is actually pretty straightforward if you think about it. And I, for one, couldn't be more stoked.
By all accounts, Amazon Echo and Google Home devices are selling like crazy. More than 43 million units shipped in the U.S. alone last year, a 60% jump from 2016, according to the Consumer Technology Association (CTA). Shipments are expected to grow a further 30% this year to 56 million units.
More than half of all U.S. households will have at least one by 2022, according to analysis firm Juniper Research. Other advanced countries, including Canada, will likely follow similar trajectories.
The reasons why aren't surprising. Alexa and Google Assistant, Amazon and Google's respective artificially intelligent helpers, are amazingly good at recognizing and understanding human speech. They're also able to deliver truly useful results, from news and weather reports to controlling smart home devices. They can even tell jokes.
Count me among the converts. I've already got four of these things around my home, and I use them all the time.
Competitors are piling on as a result. The annual CES in Las Vegas this January was awash in new speakers, with Sony, LG, Lenovo, and others soon bringing their own Alexa- and Google Assistant-loaded products to market.
Samsung is following suit with its own Bixby devices and appliances while Apple, too, is expected to launch its Siri-powered HomePod in the coming months. Microsoft hopes to be in the mix as well with its Cortana assistant.
The momentum is expected to be short-lived, though, because speakers won't have the same ongoing refresh cycle as, say, smartphones. Once a household has one or two of them, they will have little need to buy more or to upgrade. The CTA expects sales will start to taper off in 2020, with an 8% decline predicted.
So What Then?
The answer seems obvious. Sooner or later, someone is going to stick wheels on one of these speakers and, in doing so, create the world's first truly useful AI-powered robot butler. Such a development is likely to kick off a new phenomenon that will indeed have smartphone-like staying power.
That future is closer than we might think. A number of companies were already offering an early taste at CES.
"It's the next step. Do you want your assistant on a table or roaming around your house?" asks Jean-Michel Mourier, Chief Technology Officer of Blue Frog Robotics. The Paris-based company makes a two-foot-tall robot called Buddy. "We really believe that in 10 years, everybody will have a robot like this."
Like a smart speaker, Buddy is voice-controlled and can suggest food recipes, answer phone calls and play music. "He" is also equipped with cameras and a Roomba-like navigation system, which lets him serve as a roaming household security monitor that can send alerts to users when unusual situations are detected.
He's also purposely made to be cute, like a cross between R2-D2 and Wall-E. His curvy body emphasizes his large, full eyes, bringing to mind a kitten or a Japanese anime character. "We want you to have a really empathic feeling for it," Mourier says.
Kuri from Redwood City, CA-based Mayfield Robotics, also on display at CES, aims for the same appeal. Kuri is similarly about two-feet-tall and resembles Eve, Wall-E's ovoid-shaped love interest.
The robot can be considered male or female depending on user choice, and is packed with functions designed to stoke emotional responses. It has two eyes that track and follow whoever is speaking to it. It even blinks.
Kuri also has a touch sensor in the top of its head, so it looks up and chirps pleasantly when petted. It also has a "heart light" that glows according to its mood.
"We've tried really hard to make Kuri really likeable so that it's accepted in the home," says Jennifer Capasso, Mayfield's Senior Communications Manager.
Like Buddy, Kuri also promises utility. Aside from being a mobile security monitor and Bluetooth speaker, it's an autonomous videographer that captures five-second video snippets around the home. The robot's AI decides which clips are interesting, then delivers them to a smartphone app.
The idea is similar to Google Clips, a small camera announced by the search company in October that uses AI to pick out the best of its autonomously-captured videos.
That autonomy, plus always-on cameras and microphones, naturally brings up privacy concerns. Indeed, many consumers are still wary of smart speakers for similar reasons. The hot sales numbers, however, suggest the devices' utility is overriding the concerns, so far. Robot butlers will benefit from that same acceptance.
They'll have to overcome the price obstacle, too. Blue Frog is selling Buddy for $1,975, while Mayfield Robotics' Kuri retails for $1,100, which means neither is priced for the mainstream.
Both companies expect prices to decline over the next few years as components become cheaper. Costs are also likely to come down as robot makers infuse their products with Google Assistant, Alexa, and other third-party-designed AI. Neither Buddy nor Kuri currently have such capabilities, but both will soon, according to their respective manufacturers.
Adding Amazon and Google AI will free manufacturers from devoting their own resources on software development. It will also improve the robots' utility and make them less prone to embarrassing mistakes.
LG learned that lesson the hard way at CES with its Eve-like CLOi, which turned unresponsive at the company's show-opening press conference. The demo might have run more smoothly had the robot indeed been powered by Google Assistant or Alexa rather than LG's own proprietary ThinQ AI.
Ultimately, all the pieces for robot butlers are coming together. It's just a matter of time.
Smartphones became a phenomenon because they enabled computers to get up off the desktop and move around alongside their users.
Smart speakers, with all of their household utility, will soon do the same in the form of mobile robots, and a new phenomenon will be born.
It's tempting to think that these robot butlers will be yet another expensive and unnecessary toy, and in truth, they will be. But if you grew up loving the likes of Rosie the Robot and R2-D2, like I did, then this is a future that can't get here fast enough.