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.

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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.

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“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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