This is why we can't have nice robots: on the American consumer
An article in PC magazine last week called "Robot Consumers, Grow Up!" explains why US consumers just aren't ready for the kinds of robots that Asia will be producing. The conclusion is that the consumer robotics market will not take off with things like Roomba or Aibo. Instead, robotic technology will be embedded into everything we use every day and the consumers will never notice that "the robots have won." I think the article is overall a little pessimistic, but here are a few interesting comparisons:
Part of the problem is the Western world's relatively short history with robots. Most people point to Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), a science-fiction play that premiered in 1921, as the first use of the term and America's introduction to robots. We should take a cue from the Japanese. In the book Loving the Machine, author Timothy N. Hornyak explains that robots (or at least automatons) have been part of the Japanese culture for hundreds of years. They're seen as friends, helpers, entertainers, and companions. They've always resembled their creators.
American consumers fixate on anthropomorphism and generally find androids and even android pets grotesque. You won't find a lifelike robot receptionist in the U.S., but there are already many at work in Japan.
If iRobot had made a 4-foot-tall Roomba with a face and a hand to hold a vacuum hose, the company wouldn't have sold more than ten units. Instead, it sold more than two million Frisbee-shaped, personality-free bots.
There's also an interesting statement later in the article that "American robot consumers have yet to comprehend the cost of the programming and mechanical complexity necessary to create effective, realistic, interactive robots." So that's something to think about, especially when, as a robotics geek, I'm always so involved with how cool the thing I'm making is that I don't stop to think whether others appreciate how it came to be. And it also leads me into another article...
Network World talks today about a robot "amusement park" opening in South Korea. From the article:
"[O]fficials said they consider robotics to be one of South Korea's key growth industries, emphasizing "service robots" that can clean homes and offer up entertainment. The robotics industry has grown about 40% a year since 2003, officials said. ... The parks will feature a number of attractions that let visitors interact with robots and test new products."
So the first question is whether or not this would be successful in South Korea -- obviously, the government and a group of investors think it will be no problem. But if we step back and consider the first article about American robot consumers, would something like this ever fly in the US (or in the Western world, for that matter)?