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Asus Zenbo Attempts to Convince Us That We Need a $600 Home Robot

This robot can do everything your phone or tablet can do, and a little bit more, but is it enough?

3 min read
Asus Zenbo home robot
Image: Asus

Joining the small army of social robots about to invade our homes (including Jibo, Buddy, Alpha, to name just a few) is, suddenly, Zenbo, a rotund little tablet-on-wheels that Asus announced this week at Computex in Taipei, Taiwan. It supposedly does all the same stuff that every other social robot does, but even knowing that, we’re still obligated to ask the question that often annoys the heck out of roboticists: yes, it’s cool, but what does it actually do that’s distinctive and unique and that I’ll care about once the initial novelty wears off?

This promo video from Asus on Zenbo is a staggering 11 minutes long, but it’s worth watching if your eyebrows need exercising, because you’ll be raising them over and over and over:

Quick things: I doubt Zenbo is dynamically generating its speech; in fact, that sounds awfully like a pre-recorded human trying to sound like a robot to me. Also, it’s unclear how Zenbo is navigating. It looks like it has sonar to avoid obstacles, but I’m not sure how the room-to-room driving works (or the return to charging dock feature that it presumably has). It sort of looks like there might be a sensor of some kind up above the screen, but I can’t tell. Asus brought Zenbo out on stage for a solid “meh” demo at Computex, and you can watch the clip of that here

Anyway, according to the Asus press release, here is a summary of what Zenbo can do:

  • Move freely and independently around the house and assist anywhere
  • See with his camera, letting him recognize faces, take photos and videos, make video calls, and provide remote home monitoring
  • Speak convenient audible reminders of important information and be an entertaining storyteller for children
  • Hear and respond to your naturally spoken requests and questions
  • Enjoy music anywhere in the house with Zenbo’s high-quality built-in stereo
  • Connect to and control smart home devices, order items online, and interact with connected services
  • Learn and adapt to your preferences with proactive artificial intelligence
  • Express emotions with many different facial expressions

Fundamentally, Zenbo is a tablet computer on wheels, in that the only features that it offers that you can’t already get on a tablet (or phone, for that matter) are the small handful involving mobility. Specifically, Zenbo can be remote controlled to move around, acting as a mobile security camera. And it can follow you, apparently. But the storytelling, the remote fall notification that depends on a bracelet, the home control, and the understanding abstract voice commands? My phone can do all of that stuff already, so I’m not sure why I’d need a robot to do it, especially when companies like Google and Amazon have similar (albeit stationary) products that offer a much more tangible value proposition.

I like the idea of an interactive home robot in theory, but so far, I’m still hoping to see someone come up with a “killer app” that will make it clear that yes, this is why I want a home robot in addition to my phone. Otherwise, I’m left wondering specifically what that US $600 (or whatever) is actually going to get me in terms of consistent long-term benefit rather than just novelty: when the cute shape and perky fake personality are no longer entertaining, what are you really left with? Maybe there’s an answer, and Asus has a vague hope (very common in consumer social robotics) that partners and developers will somehow magically “help build a rich, robotic ecosystem that will enhance Zenbo and enrich users’ lives.” Sure, why not.

Lastly, the thing to remember about Zenbo is that videos like the one Asus put together represent the absolute best possible experience you could have with this robot, and if you buy one, you will almost certainly not have the best possible experience. It’s not that videos like these are intended to fool you, but they’re definitely deceptive, in that they don’t realistically communicate how the robot will behave in a typical home, during typical interactions. So before you decide to throw a half-dozen benjamins at Asus for this thing, I’d wait and see what the real experience ends up being like.

[ Asus Zenbo ]

The Conversation (0)

How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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