Alpha 2, a Humanoid Robot With Social Skills, Is Now on Indiegogo

Photo: UBTECH Robotics

Today, UBTECH Robotics, a company headquartered in Shenzhen, China, is launching a crowdfunding campaign for Alpha 2, a small humanoid robot “designed for practical household service and companionship.” Alpha 2 has a similar design to many other hobby-class humanoids, but two things stand out: its potential for social interaction, and its extremely low cost.

Here’s what Alpha 2 will be capable of doing for you, according to the press release:

  • Managing weekly calendars and provide verbal reminders for scheduled tasks
  • Free talk and following verbal instructions
  • Taking high quality photographs and posting to social media
  • Performing home security monitoring and alerts
  • Entertaining children, guests, and even pets 
  • Reporting the weather, searching the web, downloading applications

Honestly, we’re not sure yet what to think about this robot. This video is great, but professionally produced videos like these are always great, and the question for most crowdfunded projects, especially hardware ones, is: Can it deliver on its promises? (By now, we hope backers of such projects understand the risks involved). In this particular case, our concern is that Alpha 2, during typical use in your home, won’t perform nearly as well as what is shown in the promotional video. A few things jump out at us right away, like the rapid and flawless conversation, and the suggestion that the robot is picking up objects and handing them to people. We’re also not totally convinced that the vocalizations in this video are real: Alpha’s speech is very, very human-like—almost too human-like. If this is how the robot ends up talking during an actual hardware demo, we’d be super impressed.

For the record, we’ve had similar concerns about Jibo, Buddy, and Maya (three recent crowdfunded personal robot projects), and all other consumer social robots, including SoftBank’s Pepper. Interacting with humans is extraordinarily difficult even in the best of circumstances, and your house is, I’m sorry to say, not the best of circumstances. Most of the time, what these robots are selling are best case scenarios as opposed to typical use scenarios, and their campaign videos show capabilities that haven’t been fully developed. So it’s important to be prepared for reality when your pricey new robot friend shows up.

What we can say for sure is that the Indiegogo price of US $500 for Alpha 2 ($200 off the expected retail price) is pretty good for a walking humanoid. You can buy a ROBOTIS MINI for that much, but Alpha 2 is promising more sensing capabilities and out-of-the-box autonomous features. In fact, in terms of autonomy and interactivity (and, we should point out, appearance), Alpha 2 seems to have taken inspiration from another small humanoid, Aldebaran’s NAO, which is quite capable but costs $8000.

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Image: UBTECH Robotics

According to Alpha 2’s online FAQ, it’ll run for about an hour under typical usage, and needs to be manually plugged into the wall to charge, which takes 2 hours. While the software is proprietary, UBTECH will provide an open API and SDK for Android app development, and there will be some sort of app store.

Our hope is that UBTECH will post more videos of Alpha 2 doing some of the stuff we see in the video in a more realistic environment. Our suggestion would be that you hold off buying into the vision of Alpha 2 for “practical household service and companionship” until we get a clearer idea of what the current state of development is, but if you’re more interested in the hardware itself, $500 seems like a decent deal.

There are 300 Alpha 2s available at the $500 level, and they’re supposed to ship starting February 16, with a flexible funding goal of $100,000.

[ Indiegogo ]

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