Danielle Ishak spends her days developing a kind of domestic robot plucked from a science-fiction movie. The biggest problem facing the 28-year-old robotics researcher is figuring out whether people might actually want one in their homes.
This year hasn’t been especially encouraging in the nascent industry of home robotics. One startup founded by a pair of former Google colleagues, called TickTock, experimented with robot vacuums, teaching aids for kids and a video-chat machine on wheels.
TickTock gave up on its dream of building a consumer robot after a year. Another company, Boston-based Jibo Inc, had hired as many as 100 workers to build a social robot for the home but ended up cutting most of its staff, local news website BostInno reported in June.
The next month, Mayfield Robotics halted production of Kuri, an autonomous snowman on wheels with endearingly expressive eyes. By August, Mayfield said it was shutting down altogether. All of this goes to show why Ishak’s job is critical to her employer, Intuition Robotics Ltd.
“These things haven’t existed before, outside of TV or movies, so we don’t actually know how we want to interact with them in real life,” Ishak says. “You might think that you know how to design something like this, but in practice, you probably won’t want to hang out with it, and it might feel very awkward and unfriendly. So what you have to do is incrementally study it along the way.”
Ishak is the subject of the latest episode of Next Jobs, a mini-documentary series by Bloomberg about careers of the future. Her emerging profession represents a critical link to the robot revolution’s next stage. Until recently, robots were relegated to factory floors or given menial tasks like vacuuming that don’t involve human interaction.
But now, advances in artificial intelligence, as well as declining costs for hardware components and computing power, have made possible a new kind of robot: ones with which we share our homes and engage in conversation. That such a robot is now technically feasible, of course, doesn’t guarantee its success.
Companies are finding these projects to be “more challenging than they initially expected,” says Henny Admoni, an assistant professor at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. “When you move into the real world, you very quickly realise that humans are one of the major challenges.”
The humans Ishak works with are a particular challenge. About a dozen people in the San Francisco Bay area, all 60 or older, are beta testing the ElliQ robot in their homes. Some have never owned a smartphone; others don’t know how to type on a keyboard. Ishak visits each of them about twice a month.It was in grad school that Ishak started thinking about building technology for the elderly.
She has a master’s degree from San Jose State University in human factors and ergonomics, which studies people’s interactions with physical things. Her first job out of school was at Alphabet Inc.’s research arm, X. Last year, she joined Intuition, an Israeli startup, as its first US employee.
She declined to disclose her salary, but peers in the field earn an average of US$98,000 (RM409,000) in the US, according to jobs site Glassdoor Inc. Intuition is backed by about US$22mil (RM92mil) from investors including the venture capital divisions of Samsung Electronics Co and Toyota Motor Corp.
Bloomberg Beta, the venture arm of Bloomberg LP, is also an investor. Intuition has 35 employees, most of whom are in their 20s and 30s. Ishak’s research uncovered many shortcomings in early versions of the device. For example, designers obsessed over which font type to use for text displayed on ElliQ’s touchscreen.
When presented with a curated list of options, the beta testers couldn’t even tell the difference: The lettering, Ishak learned, was way too small. The team mocked up screens with larger letters and sent Ishak to the home of Joseph Sender, a 97-year-old tester. “Were you able to read the text on that screen?” Ishak asked on a recent visit. Sender took a moment to adjust his glasses, leaned in and nodded in approval. Ishak smiled.
Designing a machine for the elderly is full of this kind of time-consuming trial and error. ElliQ, initially scheduled for release this year, won’t go on sale until sometime in 2019, the company says. But carving out a niche may be the startup’s best hope for avoiding the fate of its predecessors.
This relegated them to the status of slightly amusing but absurdly expensive toys – especially when an Amazon Echo Dot speaker, which is more useful and less cute, costs US$40 (RM167). If ElliQ can offer a sense of companionship to a demographic that really needs it, particularly the 14 million US seniors who live alone, Intuition may be able to justify a specific and limited set of features at a likely heftier fee. (Intuition says it has yet to decide on a price.)
One promising sign may be the finding Ishak says most surprised her. With participants’ consent, Intuition logs the things they say to ElliQ. The results show users developing an emotional bond to the machine, with confessions like, “I’m lonely,” or, “I’m depressed,” or even statements of affection including, “I love you” – to which ElliQ responds, “This is why you are my favorite. Thank you.”
But it’s the nonverbal gestures, such as the way ElliQ turns its head to attention when someone walks in the room, that users identify with most, Ishak says. That’s something Alexa can’t do. But Amazon.com Inc is quietly developing its own home robot, and others will surely follow.
If ElliQ turns out to be another flop, there will probably be plenty of other companies looking for someone like Ishak to help them design machines you’d be willing to invite into your living room.