Social Home Robots: 35 Years of Progress

After nearly four decades of development, interactive home robots have made exactly as much progress as you'd expect

4 min read
Shawn Melville uses a computer joystick to operate a personal robot. A Topo robot built by Androbot brings him an apple.
Topo, a consumer and educational robot released in 1983 by Androbot.
Photo: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis/Getty Images

This Saturday, the Robot Film Festival is taking place in Portland, Ore. This is the eighth year of the festival, and after bouncing around between San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles, the festival has (at least temporarily) settled on the greatest city on earth (and coincidentally my hometown), Portland. 

The theme this year is “Vintage Arcade Revival,” celebrating the culture and technology of the 1980s. Or at least, celebrating what passed for culture and technology back then. I’ll be giving a short introductory talk to help kick off the film festival, about the progress we’ve seen in social home robots from the 1980s to today. Since I know some of you live in Antarctica and probably can’t make it to Portland (for everyone else there’s no excuse), here’s a selection of videos from the talk I’ll be giving to give you a sense of just how much has changed in social home robots over the last 35 years.

Social Home Robots of the 1980s

1982: Omnibot MK II

1984: Omnibot 2000

1989: Synpet Newton

1983: Androbot Topo/Bob

1982: RB5X

Modern Social Home Robots





What’s Stayed the Same Since the 1980s

Weird Commercials: Most of the people in these videos are acting weird, and not just ’80s weird. Like, if the people in these commercials represent the target audience of the companies selling these robots, I’m surprised anyone buys them at all. But seriously, the real issue here is that the commercials are never, ever truly representative of the capabilities of the robots or how you should expect them to behave if you buy one. The commercials from the 1980s are probably worse, but you’re still being shown robots behaving optimally, and robots almost never behave optimally.

Not Super Clear What Useful Things It Does: Robots have had issues for a long time around the fact that they’re able to do a lot of things, as long as you have the skill and patience to program them. 1980s robots had the disadvantage of being more tedious to program, but also the advantage of not having to compete against other tech, like smartphones or home automation. Modern robots can struggle to justify their usefulness in an increasingly crowded home technology space, and they try to make up for it by being easily programmable, but that can be a hard sell for folks who want something that does useful stuff out of the box.

Affordable Hasn’t Happened: Interactive home robots in the 1980s were very expensive, generally over a thousand dollars in today’s money. Interactive home robots right now are somewhat less expensive, but not by much, when you consider the cliff that the cost of computers has fallen off of.

Many of those 1980s commercials talked about robots becoming your friend, your best friend, or a part of your family. We see this all the time with the current generation of social home robots as well. Presenting a robot in this way means, for most people, that the poor thing is going to fail horribly to live up to the expectations set for it

Still Not a Part of the Family: Many of those 1980s commercials talked about robots becoming your friend, your best friend, or a part of your family. We see this all the time with the current generation of social home robots as well, and it’s something that we’re superskeptical about. Presenting a robot in this way means, for most people, that the poor thing is going to fail horribly to live up to the expectations set for it.

Wild Optimism About the Near Future: You heard it in those 1980s commercials: Robots are going to change the world! They’ll be doing all of these things that we hate doing and make our lives better! Any day now! Don’t get me wrong, this IS happening, but it’s happening very slowly, and not usually in the ways that people predict. I suppose that when you’re selling a robot, being optimistic about the future of robotics is required, but a little more realism might help keep expectations a little more in check.

What’s Changed Since the 1980s:

Weird Commercials Now Streaming in HD: The commercials may not necessarily be better, but they certainly look better.

Smaller, Rounder, Shinier, Whiter: I appreciated how much character those 1980s interactive robots had. The current generation of interactive home robots each have their own carefully thought-out designs, but there’s a rather dull amount of commonality as well, even if it’s justified.

We’ve Given Up on Manipulation: Almost all of those 1980s robots had arms of some sort, and many of those commercials made a point of showing them carrying things, or even pouring drinks. What the commercials didn’t show, of course, is that (with the exception of the Androbot BOB) someone had to put stuff on the robot’s tray or in its gripper first, making the manipulation itself a novelty as opposed to something useful. Mobile manipulation may have been ambitious (to the point of nonfunctionality) in the 1980s, but you’d think that in 35 years, we’d have gotten 
better at it to the point where someone would make a useful home robot with an arm on it.

Automation Is the New Robotics: As you can see from the commercials, a lot of the more sophisticated robots of the 1980s were doing tasks that we’d now classify as home automation. This includes things like turning lights on and off, home monitoring, accessing information over the Internet, and so on. Today, robots can’t rely on tasks like that to distinguish themselves, because we do it through our phones, or through smart speakers. This brings up the question of what you decide to call a “robot,” but it’s pretty clear that modern social home robots are still looking for a useful niche for themselves. 

Even after 35 years.

The eighth annual Robot Film Festival is this Saturday, July 14, at McMenamins Mission Theater in Portland, Ore. In addition to films, there will be performances by both humans and robots, drinks, food, and more drinks. All ages are welcome, and you can buy tickets here. Or, you can find me on Twitter, and I may be able to toss a guest pass or two your way.

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

Keep Reading ↓Show less