photo by Ian Hughes
Having a robot sidekick was once the domain of science fiction characters like Luke Skywalker or Will Robinson. But a company that made a little ’bot named Vector was briefly poised to offer me a battery-operated sidekick of my own.
Vector was built to react to its surroundings, including human touch. (Vector responds to being petted and to requests for fist-bumps, despite lacking fists.) Vector’s capabilities include weather reports, photography, running a timer and learning how to avoid running into obstacles. While “cuteness” is not a capability per se, it is also a deliberate part of Vector’s design. I seriously considered nominating Vector to my family as a possible birthday present for me last year.
In the end, I didn’t ask for Vector. My kids got me something less cute but more useful: an Amazon Echo Dot to bring Alexa to my bedroom. (I already have an Echo speaker tower in the living room.) Now if I want to listen to BBC news or local radio, or learn the score of last night’s ballgame while I get dressed, I just ask. I know having Alexa “listening” to – if not really hearing – whatever goes on in the bedroom freaks some people out. Personally, I don’t care as long as she stays discreet. She has not disappointed me yet.
My wife got me something much bigger and more costly than Vector, but more life-changing than a humanoid robot: a giant-screen television.
Vector was made by a company called Anki. I say “was made” because Anki abruptly shut down earlier this month, reportedly after burning through around $200 million in venture capital. Anki, like other home robotics companies, failed to answer the question “what is it for” in a compelling way for Vector or its kid-friendly predecessor, Cozmo. Robots are a natural fit in a structured environment like a factory. In a free-form environment like a home, they need specific tasks, such as cleaning a floor, to become practical.
I might make a trite comment about robots being the future, but they are already the present. From the Roomba that sweeps my floor to the autonomous shuttle trains that carry me around downtown Miami or between terminals at airports like Orlando and Atlanta, I already interact with robots regularly. And this doesn’t even begin to cover their applications in warehouses and factories. Robots are beginning to deliver packages and meals on an experimental basis. Autonomous cars are on the road, though not yet widespread; they are robots, too. Robots explore places that are too dangerous for humans to venture or remain long, such as the deepest ocean depths or the radioactive ruins of Fukushima.
The common thread among all these robots is that they are useful. While some are also interesting, that quality is incidental.
Vector, for all its cuteness and groundbreaking tech, wasn’t useful. If I brought him to the office, he couldn’t have carried papers to and from my office for my signature, saving a human employee a short trip. He couldn’t greet a visitor at the door, because he couldn’t open the door. (The visitor might have mistaken him for a mouse, given his size.) He couldn’t fetch me a cup of tea from the kitchen.
I can see how a robotic personality like Vector could help someone who is physically or socially isolated, like the shut-in elderly. There have already been a few steps in this direction, and I am sure we will eventually arrive there. But Vector was capable of too little to account for not just the retail price, but the intellectual investment in his design. Vector was a true advance in robotics, but without a useful application.
Vector, as Wired observed, had character and was truly fun. But that was not enough to justify the little robot’s price tag for most consumers. Though the company reported nearly $100 million in revenue for 2018, a funding deal fell through at the last minute. Evidently there was not a path forward without it. The venture capitalists pulled the plug, and now the Vectors of the world will slowly run out of virtual steam until they wind up in collectors’ cases and future antique shops.
Vector had his moments. When I asked Alexa for a fist bump this morning, she came back with the announcement: “Bump, yo!” That’s weak. But when I asked Alexa for the BBC news, she promptly delivered.