Americans are wary of robots, but lovable ones like Kuri could help us welcome these helpful androids into our homes.
Robots used to be the stuff of science fiction. Not so much anymore. At CES, you can even find an entire section of the floor dedicated to them. Even so, robots aren’t usually the starring attraction of CES—though Kuri by Mayfield Robotics is doing it’s best to challenge that.
I got my first glimpse of Kuri at CES Unveiled and, it’s true, my initial interest was based on the robot’s cuteness. The design is reminiscent of pop culture’s favorite robot personalities: R2-D2, BB-8, Wall-E, and EVE. All simple lines and curves, with the added bonus of cheerful beeps and bloops, Kuri is the exact opposite of the vaguely apocalyptic implications that talk of the Singularity usually brings. A simple pat to Kuri’s head was greeted with a robotic chirp, happy eyes, and a warm glow in his LED chest. If you booped Kuri’s base, he would stutter back confused, head glancing from side to side, eyes blinking rapidly, as if to suss out what had happened.
These are all expressions and descriptions that you’d find antithetical to a “robot.” Even cute robots like Softbank’s Pepper or Honda’s Asimo are still oddly detached and somewhat unnatural. They’re technologically impressive but at the same time, you can’t really imagine them being your friend, let alone living in your house with pets and children. So what immediately stood out about Kuri was how easy it was to personify and empathize with him—starting with simple pronouns like “him” or “her” instead of “it.”
At a demo, Mayfield Robotics explained that this is all part of the plan. Because Kuri was envisioned as a personal assistant robot, it had to be something that you could relate to and would feel comfortable having in your home every day. So while a lot of the functionality is similar to other smart home devices—streaming feeds of your house, audio, facial and speech recognition, etc.—the building block for Kuri wasn’t the technology, but the design. Personality, not specs.
This is evident in the little flourishes Mayfield Robotics has added. When demonstrating Kuri’s ability to navigate around a backpack and into a kitchenette, you can see that the robot looks left, as you or I would, before turning. And, instead of smoothly gliding across the floor, Kuri has a little waddle that looks like it jumped straight out of a Pixar film.
If you issue a voice command that Kuri doesn’t understand, his chest will light up yellow and he’ll shake his head in confusion. If you or a family member walks in the door, Kuri can be programmed to waddle up to you and “smile” at you in greeting. You get the same response when you issue a command, which makes saying “Hey Kuri” infinitely more satisfying than saying “Hey Siri.” After spending just 45 minutes with Kuri, it was impossible to walk away without feeling the same kind of affection one might feel for a puppy walking down the street.
It’d be easy for a cynic to look at the $699 price tag and say, “Okay, so what if it’s cute? What’s the point?” Well, for years Japan has been leading the charge in personal assistant robots. This is partly because as a culture, the Japanese view the future of robots as friendly helpers rather than potential Terminator-esque overlords. In the West, aside from perhaps the Star Wars films, robots have frequently been portrayed as soulless, logic-driven machines that eventually learn to overthrow their imperfect and illogical creators.
And as such, Western robots tend to be impressive from an engineering standpoint like Boston Dynamics’s Atlas, but rather impersonal. So for an American-based company to be the creators of Kuri is somewhat of a pleasant surprise. Perhaps even a possible sign that the rise of the robots doesn’t have to be quite so ominous.
It’s also telling what Kuri doesn’t do. When asked how he’d describe Kuri’s personality, Mayfield Robotics CEO Mike Beebe said “earnest, curious, and humble.” It’s simply not in Kuri’s programming to get angry, snarky, or spiteful. And when it came to figuring out Kuri’s functionality, there were some features that Mayfield decided against including as it wouldn’t jibe with Kuri’s personality.
It’s a little too early to tell whether Kuri will help spark a more Jetsonian future. While you can pre-order Kuri with a deposit of $100, Mayfield Robotics doesn’t expect they’ll be ready until the holiday season for 2017. It’s also hard to judge just how much consumers will be willing to pay for what, at this point in time, is first-adopter novelty technology. But if robot maids, nannies, and companions are in our future, then Kuri’s personality-first approach is worth emulating.