The Rise of Robots at CES 2020

Adam Rowe

“Futurists and technology experts say robots and artificial intelligence of various sorts will become an accepted part of daily life by the year 2020 and will almost completely take over physical work.”

That's a quote from Elon University, from way back in 2006. Needless to say, the robot revolution hasn't quite manifested. But you'd be hard pressed to tell that from a quick tour of CES 2020, where the future still seems as robotic as ever.

Robots, and the artificial intelligence that powers them, have taken some great strides in the past few years (literal strides, in some cases). But the AI advancements that have the biggest impact tend to quietly insert themselves into your life. For example, I just recently noticed how Gmail casually auto-suggests spelling corrections for me, as well as phrases I might want to write next. In a few months, I'll barely notice its presence.

At CES 2020, however, robots are designed for the opposite. They're flashy innovations designed to stir up interest. Here's a closer look at which robots have debuted at the big tech event.

Samsung's Ballie

First up, a BB-8 lookalike from Samsung. The tennis-ball-shaped bot's stated purpose is to “capture special moments” via its built-in camera. It can also help trigger a smart home's devices to complete household chores, and can serve as a “fitness assistant.” It seems to accomplish this by doggedly following around its owner, though presumably not up or down stairs.

Too flashy? It might be! I don't see too many practical applications to Ballie that couldn't be accomplished better with a smartwatch. And smartwatches can go up stairs. Still, this is an undeniably cute robot, which counts for a lot at CES.

BellaBot, the cat waitress

Robot cat

PuduTech's robot was once just a boring waiter robot. The cat ears and face are a new addition to an older model, and I have to say they warm my cold cynical heart. Better yet, this robot has a clear raison d'etre, as it can deliver meals to restaurant patrons at locations that are too busy for the human waitstaff to keep up with.

Surprisingly for a robot that looks like a cat, this CES robot isn't all flash and no substance. It's already in service at 2,000 locations in China, so the proof of concept is strong. And restaurants, with their complex but learnable floor plans and constant stream of table-dependent orders, seem like the perfect training ground for a programmable, machine-learning robot. It's pretty easy to imagine the software we currently use to help waiters starting to incorporate robots like this, with a few updates.

Charmin's Rollbot, the toilet paper robot

Charmin robot

Charmin's robot comes with a brand-friendly bear face, and an equally brand-friendly purpose: to deliver a new roll of toilet paper to those in need. We've already done a little media analysis on this particular innovation in our roundup of the weirdest CES products:

“We're not quite sure on how the small, wheeled automaton actually gets the toilet roll in the first place – the implication seems to be that he is forever cursed to have a roll on his head, ready to serve his master at any moment. It's a joyless existence surely designed to provoke Asimov's rule that a robot must obey its orders.”

Is a toilet-paper-delivery bot really something that could help humanity in its darkest hour, or is it just a feint towards usefulness from what's clearly a brand extension?

On one hand, running out of toilet paper before your, uh, porcelain throne business has wrapped up, is certainly a problem we've all run into. On the other hand, if you run out of toilet paper often enough to need this robot, you're unlikely to be the sort of person who remembers to restock your robot in the first place.

Lovot, the huggable robot

Lovot robot

Groove X's retail-ready robot, Lovot, is designed for maximum cuddliness. The app-controlled bot first appeared at last year's CES, and is essentially a step or two up from a stuffed animal. Its eyes, behavior, and interactions can all be customized and it uses a pair of wheels to navigate its owner's home, learning the layout.

While it can serve a few practical purposes — it's camera-equipped, letting users remotely snap photos of any room in their house for security — the main goal is just to provide a plush, huggable robot pet for your home.

It's currently available for purchase in Japan, at around $2,770. Is it worth the price? You tell me. If you like the idea of it, it certainly appears to deliver on what it promises to do.

Picnic's pizza-making robot

Seattle startup Picnic revealed a particularly impressive robot at CES 2020: An automated pizza-making machine. A conveyer belt slowly takes the dough underneath a spout of tomato sauce, waterfall of cheese, and pepperoni dispensor. It's a simple process, but the results are undeniable, and anything that makes pizza is a miracle worth praising in my book.

Picnic is betting big on this innovation, Geekwire reports, with a pizza-as-a-service business model that could soon expand to include sandwiches, salads, and tacos. This is probably the least flashy robot to arrive at CES this week, but it's the most likely to turn into the next huge startup.

MarsCat

MarsCat robot

It appears that the CES animal robots battle stands at bears, one, cats, two: MarsCat is another cat-centric robot.

Developed by Elephant Robotics and funded through a crowdfunding campaign that blew past a $20,000 goal to nearly hit six figures, this bionic cat bot serves a similar purpose as Lovot: It's a home-based robotic pet. Interestingly, its AI is designed to change MarsCat's personality depending on how you pet it, in order to ensure every pet is unique.

Honestly, that sounds like more responsiblity over my pet's personality then I want, but to each their own. On the bright side, it's definitely not going to use a litter box.

Although if it did, you could just ring up Charmin and ask for Rollbot.

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Adam is a writer at Tech.co and has worked as a tech writer, blogger and copy editor for the last decade. He's also a Forbes Contributor on the publishing industry (and Digital Book World 2018 award finalist) and has appeared in publications including Popular Mechanics and IDG Connect. When not glued to TechMeme, he loves obsessing over 1970s sci-fi art.

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