Apple’s next nebulous idea: smart home robots

Humanoid robots are one of those dreams that sometimes feel like we’re on the precipice of realizing. Boston Dynamics has its Atlas robot, and Tesla is pursuing robotics, while companies like Mercedes, Amazon, and BMW are or will be testing robots for industrial use. But those are all very expensive robots performing tasks in controlled environments. In the home, they might still be far off.

Enter Apple. Mark Gurman at Bloomberg has said its robotics projects are under the purview of former Google employee John Giannandrea, who has been in charge of Siri and, for a time, the Apple Car. With the car project canceled, Vision Pro launched, and “Apple Intelligence” around the corner, is that the next big thing?

According to his information, any humanoid Apple robot is at least a decade away. Still, simpler ideas may be closer — a smaller robot that might follow you around or another idea involving a large iPad display on a robotic arm that emotes along with the caller on the other end with head nods and the like.

Many, if not most, homes are dens of robot-confounding chaos.

A mobile robot is tricky, though; what in the world would Apple do with a home robot that follows me around? Will it play music? Will it have wheels, or will it walk? Will I be expected to talk to AJAX or SiriGPT or whatever the company names its chatbot? Or, given Apple’s rumored OpenAI deal, some other chatbot?

Ballie in 2020 (left) vs. Ballie in 2024 (right).
Screenshots: YouTube

For that matter, what form will it take? Will it fly? Will it have wheels? Will it be a ball? Can I kick it?

Its form factor will be at least as important as its smarts. Houses have stairs, furniture that sometimes moves, clothes that end up on the floor, pets that get in the way, and kids who leave their stuff everywhere. Doors that opened or closed just fine yesterday don’t do so today because it rained. A haphazard kitchen remodel 20 years ago might mean your refrigerator door slams into the corner of the wall by the stairs because why would you put the refrigerator space anywhere else, Dave? But I digress.

Based on what little detail has trickled out, Apple’s robotics ideas seem to fit a trend of charming novelty bots we’ve seen lately.

Samsung’s “Bot Handy” robot.
Image: Samsung

One recent example is Samsung’s Bot Handy concept, which looks like a robot vacuum with a stalk on top and a single articulating arm, meant to carry out tasks like picking up after you or sorting your dishes. There’s also the cute ball-bot, Ballie, that Samsung has shown off at a couple of CES shows. The latest iteration follows its humans and packs a projector that can be used for movies, video calls, or entertaining the family dog.

Amazon’s Astro is an expensive way to get a beer.
Photo by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge

Meanwhile, Amazon’s $1,600 home robot with a tablet for a face, Astro, is still available by invitation only. It is charming, in a late 90s Compaq-computer-chic aesthetic sort of way, but it’s not clear that it’s functionally more useful than a few cheap wired cameras and an Echo Dot.

LG “AI Agent” robot from CES 2024.
Image: LG

LG says its Q9 “AI Agent” is a roving smart home controller that can guess your mood and play music for you based on how it supposes you’re feeling. I’m very skeptical of all of that, but it has a handle, and I do love a piece of technology with a built-in handle.

I still want a sci-fi future filled with robotic home assistants that save us from the mundane tasks that keep us from the fun stuff we would rather do. But we don’t all live in the pristine, orderly abode featured in Samsung’s Ballie video or the videos Apple produces showing its hardware in personal spaces. Many normal homes are dens of robot-confounding chaos that tech companies will have a hard time accounting for when they create robots designed to follow us or autonomously carry out chores.

There are other paths to take. Take the Ring Always Home Cam, which will be very noisy judging from the demo videos, but it could also be useful and even good. While putting aside the not-insignificant privacy implications for a moment, it seems promising to me mostly because of the mobility and that it’s only designed to be a patrolling security camera.

That kind of focused functionality means it’s predictable, which is what makes single-purpose gizmos and doodads work. After some experimentation, my smart speakers are where they hear me consistently or are the most useful, and I can put my robot vacuums in the rooms I know I’ll keep clean enough that they won’t get trapped or break something (usually).

The robot vacuums I have — the Eufy Robovac L35 and a Roomba j7 — do an okay job, but they sometimes need rescuing when they find my cat’s stringy toys or eat a paperclip (which are somehow always on the floor even though I never, ever actually need one or even know where we keep them).

I have a kid, see, and preparing the way for them in other parts of the house is just adding more work to the mix. That’s fine for me because the two rooms in their charge are the ones that need vacuuming the most, so they’re still solving a problem, but it waves at the broader hurdles robotic products face.

And it’s not all that clear that AI can solve those problems. A New York Times opinion piece recently pointed out that despite all the hand-wringing about the tech over the last year and a half, generative AI hasn’t proven that it will be any better at making text, images, and music than the “mediocre vacuum robot that does a passable job.”

Given the generative AI boom and rumors that Apple is working on a HomePod with a screen, a cheerful, stationary smart display that obsequiously turns its screen to face me all the time seems at least vaguely within the company’s wheelhouse. Moving inside the house and interacting with objects is a trickier problem, but companies like Google and Toyota have seen success using generative AI training approaches for robots that “learn” how to do things like make breakfast or quickly sort items with little to no explicit programming.

It’ll be years, maybe even decades, before Apple or anyone else can bring us anything more than clumsy, half-useful robots that blunder through our homes, being weird, frustrating, or broken. Heck, phone companies haven’t even figured out how to make notifications anything but the bane of our collective existence. They’ve got their work cut out for them with homes like mine, where we’re just one busy week away from piles of clutter gathering like snowdrifts, ready to ruin some poor robot’s day.

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