This week, another consumer robotics companies that I had the pleasure of working with, Anki, shut its doors and let go of its more than 200 employees. The company joined a growing line of companies in the consumer robotics space (Jibo, Mayfield Robotics’ Kuri) that have made big splashes, only to run out of money and shutter its business.
The commercial side of robotics isn’t completely safe, either. Earlier this year, CyPhy Works, after changing its name to Aria Insights, shut its doors. Last year, cobot innovator Rethink Robotics went out of business (although the intellectual property of the Sawyer and Baxter robots were purchased by Hahn Group, so you still may see them around in the future).
There’s currently a lot of navel-gazing in the industry after a major shutdown – “Why are robotics companies failing?” and “What are we doing wrong?”, and a lot of the reasons given are the same after each shutdown. Lack of money, not listening to the customer, “robots are hard”, the robot didn’t do enough, etc., are often given.
Here are three reasons why I think more robot companies are likely to fail:
Reason #1: Consumer expectations are too high
This has been mentioned before, but when robot companies talk to me about their systems or other robots, they all cite The Jetsons and Rosie the maid. A framed photo of Rosie is at the Spyce restaurant in Boston, which uses robots to help prepare its food bowls. The Jetsons are often quoted in the autonomous vehicle space as well, with promises of flying cars and giant cities in the skies.
Because we’ve all grown up with this cartoon, or science-fiction films like Blade Runner or The Fifth Element with its flying cars, we all expect to have the same kind of capabilities when we experience a real robot, either at work or in the home. We’re then sadly disappointed when the robot fails to live up to this expectation.
Anki’s latest robot, Vector, was fun for a while – it did feel like more than a toy initially, and it did have a personality, one of its goals to distinguish itself from other “robot toys”. But in the end, I shut off the Vector because of its personality – it was squeaking and squawking too much. I have a love/hate relationship with lots of my technology – the only real thing I do with the Amazon Echo is have it play music and turn on/off lights in the house, and I get annoyed when I ask a question and it goes, “I’m sorry, I don’t know the answer to that question.” Ugh.
Reason #2: People are afraid of robots
On the flip side, people may say that they like robots, but many people out there are afraid that robots are going to “take their jobs,” “kill us all”, or somehow cause a world seen in The Terminator. While many people play these comments for laughs, it doesn’t help that a lot of us in the media continue to pump out content around “Will a robot take my job?” and similar fear-based questions.
Author and journalist Dan Lyons, who gave a keynote at this week’s AUVSI Xponential show in Chicago, pointed out this fear by the public in a humorous way. He showed a screen shot of a Google search in which he typed out the words “Will a robot…” and then looked at the answers. Go ahead, try this yourself. Here’s what I got:
- Will robots take my job
- Will robots take over the world
- Will robots take our jobs
- Will robots replace doctors
- Will robots replace humans
- Will robots take over our jobs
- Will robots replace surgeons
- Will robots replace teachers
- Will robots replace nurses
- Will robots replace human jobs
With that kind of angst about robots, why should anyone expect that we’d also then want to buy one for our home? That’s like me inviting the guy who laid me off two years ago over for a lobster dinner.
The commercial and industrial robotics industry has done a pretty good job at attempting to assure workers that robotics deployments will help employees with their jobs, but it’s also very, very good at the moment that unemployment is at an all-time low, and companies are deploying robots to help fill labor shortages. If the economy takes a nosedive like it did in 2008-2009, the anti-robot voices will get a lot louder.
Reason #3: People don’t need home robots, unless it’s doing dirty work
There’s a reason why so many people buy iRobot’s Roomba vacuums – it does a task that nobody really likes doing – vacuuming. Even then, some people I know who own Roombas end up running the vacuum cleaner when it’s time to make sure the floor is really clean when company is coming over.
Hopefully, the iRobot Terra lawn mower that’s coming out later this year will have a similar trajectory – I hate using my lawn mower, and only get out there when the grass starts to look like we’ve abandoned the house.
There are companies that are attempting to replace other menial household tasks, like folding laundry or cleaning the toilet, but a lot of these robots are failing to impress, or they’re just too expensive for consumers. People will change their habits once they realize that the alternative is either less expensive, or more convenient. For example, I started using Uber after waiting too long in cab lines in major cities. But it helped that the cost was either lower or about the same, too.
Consumer robot companies should take a page from the commercial robot companies that continue to pound the message that their robots are doing the “dirty, dull and dangerous” tasks. Sure, there’s not a lot that’s dangerous in the home (maybe window washing), but consumer robots that can make my chores a lot easier for me will gain my attention more than a robot that plays music for me.