In the beginning, before the toy company Sphero had introduced the world to a real, working and lovable Star Wars BB-8 droid, it thought it was only in the business of making robot toys. In fact, before Bob Igor, Disney’s CEO, realised that the first robot Sphero ever developed bore a remarkable resemblance to one of the heroes of the new Star Wars film (Episode 7), the tagline for Sphero’s ‘toy’ was “the robotic ball​​​​​​​ controlled from your smartphone”.

But what Sphero eventually realised was that what it had was more than just a “robotic ball”; what it had was a robotic ball that was also a pet, a friend and a partner in crime all rolled into one.

As the co-founder of Sphero, Ian Bernstein, explains, the company’s eureka moment, when it realised it was making more than just toys, came before it had ever taken a meeting with Disney or heard of a droid called BB-8. “With Sphero 2.0 we started to add character, and we created this whole backstory, so when you open the app for the first time we had this two or three minute animation that sets up where Sphero came from,” says Bernstein.

“After that, you can take Sphero and go through different missions and things like that, and we started to see people really connect with the product in a different way. It's not like your phone, like your iPhone or android or whatever you use, where you don't really have any value around it. Like you could just throw your phone out and go to the store and get another phone; there's no emotional attachment to that particular phone.

Sphero's beloved BB-8 robot.

Image courtesy of Sphero, © & ™ Lucasfilm Ltd

"But with Sphero 2.0 and especially BB-8 people started developing relationships. There's been other articles that have talked about this with things like Roomba [robot vacuums] where people's Roombas would break, and [the manufacturer] iRobot would offer to send them a new vacuum, but they would say 'I don't want a new vacuum, I want my vacuum'.”

Right now, Sphero’s toys are pretty much as good as it gets when it comes to physical

robots and humans forging relationships, and having learned the importance of establishing that bond when Bernstein was looking for a new project he didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. Instead, he took his learnings from Sphero and tried to recreate the feelings of intimacy between robots and humans that attracted people to BB-8, only this time in more advanced robots.

Misty Robotics: Sphero’s home and office robot spinout

For people of a certain age Rosie from The Jetsons is the quintessential autonomous robot, so when Sphero made the decision to separate its work within the connected toy industry from its advanced robotics division and create a new company, Misty Robotics – at which Bernstein serves as head of product – it was clear what the ultimate ambition was.

“The ultimate goal in the semi-far-out future is a robot like Rosie from The Jetsons: robots that can clean our houses and cook food and help take care of us, but also have a personality that we can hang out with,” says Bernstein.

But Misty doesn’t have time to wait for its The Jetsons inspired dreams to become real, and plans to release the first iteration of its autonomous personal assistant in 2018. While it won’t be Rosie that lands next year, the company is confident about what it can achieve, even at this stage, and there are certainly reasons to be optimistic.

“Consumers are already starting to get comfortable with talking to technology, so we think they are ready for the first version of this robot.”

Misty is obviously emboldened by the success of Sphero and the knowledge that was gained about how to get people to interact with robots, but as Bernstein explains, the key contributors to Misty’s confidence are external.

Firstly, the fact that the technology is available and cheap enough to make an initial version of the robot assistant breeds a lot of confidence, and secondly there are now numerous examples of people being willing to not just play around and interact with toy robots, but also examples of people using technology in a way that Misty intends its robot assistants to be used: as a means of helping with day-to-day tasks.

“We think the technology to make a robot that can actually start to do useful things, those technologies are available today,” says Bernstein. “Add to that, consumers are already starting to get comfortable with talking to technology, for instance with Siri and Google Assistant, Amazon Echo and other products like that, so we think consumers are ready for the first version of this robot.”

Misty or Siri: the AI assistant challenge

Although Bernstein admits that we’re a long way off from Rosie from The Jetsons, he says that he “can see a path to getting to the Rosie”. In the here and now, though, Bernstein says that the robot that is to be unveiled in 2018 is “definitely starting to satisfy some of the things to get there,” and that ”it definitely can do some of the things that I think are important.”

Let’s not forget, though, that Rosie was an idea of the future devised in the 1960s. In the 21st Century, Rosie-style personal robots have been usurped by virtual assistants released in the intervening years. If the first version of Misty’s robot can’t distinguish itself from technologies like the Amazon Echo, Siri and Google Home then it just becomes a bigger, fatter and more unwieldy version, and nobody’s crying out for that.

Simply put, if Misty’s robot is to be successful then it has to be capable of moving and manipulating objects without appearing to be clunky or awkward. Bernstein is aware that this is what people are expecting, and in our conversation he did stress how important it is to have robot that can carry out basic tasks.

He also said that while making that ambition a reality is expensive, savings could be passed onto consumers by virtue of having a robot that interacts with the devices we have now, which would remove the need to buy new devices that are capable of interacting with virtual assistants.

“I think the future is about keeping the same devices we have now, but we'll need a robot that can interact with these devices.”

“I think that the ability to manipulate things is really important over just a more virtual AI. Everybody is like can it do my laundry? Can it fold my laundry? Can it go to the dryer, put things in and take things out?

“Things like that are really important and when you look at computing power and software it just gets cheaper and cheaper and more powerful over time, but when you think about manipulating things you'd need actuators and motors and metal and copper and magnets and these things have finite resources on the Earth and they're not going to get cheaper the way computing power does,” says Bernstein.

“When we think about the future that's one of the reasons we're interested in these robots that can do multi-purpose. You can't have your washing machine be its own robot and then you have a vacuuming robot and then you have the food cooking robot.

“It's just not economical to duplicate all of those actuators and things, so I think the future is about keeping the same devices we have now for washing our clothes and refrigeration and things like that, but we'll need a robot that can interact with these devices so that the motors and the actuators and the intelligence are inside one device, which is the personal robot in your home or office.”

Robots in every home and office

When Misty sent out a press release announcing its inception there was one line that made everyone take notice: “Misty Robotics’ vision is to put a personal robot in every home and office.”

“These robots will be seen and treated as our friends, our teammates and a part of our families – performing helpful tasks, providing safety, and interacting with humans in entertaining and friendly ways that have only been seen before in science fiction,” the press release goes on to reveal.

The path from science fiction to installed in every home and office is a complicated one though, and, as Bernstein explains, Misty intends to start its journey into the public consciousness by connecting with early innovators and developers.

“How I picture my robot in the future, it's just like my little buddy, it just kind of like hangs out with you and it does things.”

“When we think about the first robots that we're releasing we're not targeting the robot that's going to go into your local Target store or Walmart. Mass consumer will come later.” says Bernstein. “We're really focusing on those early adopters and early innovators now, and working on figuring out how robots will be used in the home and the office and then going more mainstream later on.”

Misty is targeting developers initially, but that doesn’t mean the company is forgetting about the mass market or consumers, even at this stage. Misty is thinking about its long-term goal of getting these robots into people’s homes, and with the knowledge gained from Sphero, there’s no confusion this time around about whether what they’re creating is just a functional product. Misty expects the relationships its robots have with humans to be much deeper than that.

“How I picture my robot in the future, it's just like my little buddy, it just kind of like hangs out with you and it does things,” says Bernstein.

“When you leave your house it makes sure everything is in the right place, maybe it cooks food when you come home so you have a nice meal. It's almost like a pet; it's sort of that companion that's always there for you and it cares about you.”

Robots will be robots

Once you start talking about autonomous robots that work alongside humans, it’s never going to be long before someone suggests that if they can work with us, then they can replace us too. 

On a broader point, Bernstein is sure that in the future robots will take over some jobs, but the robot Misty is working on has been created with the idea of augmenting humans, rather than replacing them.

To reassure humanity that Misty’s robots aren’t here to replace us, the company doesn’t want to make them look human (in my mind this is at least part of the reason why Rosie from The Jetsons, rather than a more modern interpretation of an autonomous robot, was chosen as the inspiration for Misty’s robot), so don’t expect any human-looking robots from Misty anytime soon.

“Our goal in the future is not to make it so that you wouldn't be able to distinguish between the robot and a person. We always think they'll be different.”

“There's a few things that we’re thinking about that are important for these robots in the home. They need to be useful, they need to be a character and they need to be familiar to us,” says Bernstein.

“In certain ways I think having human qualities can add to that sort of sense of familiarity, but you see a lot of robots in movies that look like people, and they try to make them so you don't even know it's a robot, like in [the HBO series] Westworld. We're really not trying to build a robotic human or a better human; we think robots are separate.

“There should be dogs and cats and robots and people. We're not trying to emulate a person, so in the sense that we want to make something that's familiar to us and has maybe a familiar interface to interact with we'll make them sort of human-like, but we're not trying to put skin on it like a person.

“Our goal in the future is not to make it so that you wouldn't be able to distinguish between the robot and a person. We always think they'll be different.”

Personality goes a long way

Creating a familiarity in the way Misty’s robot assistant feels, if not the way that it looks, will mostly be determined by its personality, and Misty has a plan to make each and every robot feel different by having them adapt to their environment over time, although this feature probably won’t be available in the robot’s first iteration.  

“The personality will adapt over time, maybe not for the first version, but something we think about as a goal is the example of if you had a robot and I got a robot, and we both bought them on the same day, and then we had these robots in our homes for a month or a couple of months.

“If we brought these robots together and we had a good mutual friend that really knew both of us. That mutual friend could interact with the robots and quite quickly know which robot was your robot and which robot was my robot just based on their behaviours,” says Bernstein.

After your interaction with it, the robot changes just like a person would, and that personality just develops like an animal or a human does now.​​​​​​​

“It’s similar to how if you started to hang out with a new friend you'd start to say similar things and you'd kind of share a personality and pick up things from each other. We see the robot doing that same thing, so after your interaction with it, it changes just like a person would, and that personality just develops like an animal or a human does now.”

It’s clear that Misty already has plans in place for future versions of the robot assistant, but for developers who get a hold of Misty’s first attempt, Bernstein confirmed that the company will be making sure it’s software updates that expand the robot’s abilities, so buyers don’t won’t need to worry about purchasing new hardware.  Although, Bernstein says: “Over time we'll have new hardware iterations and stuff like that to add more capabilities to the robot as far as sensing and being able to manipulate things.”

The robot that does everything

When Bernstein began at Sphero he chose the tagline “the robotic ball controlled from your smartphone”. If he wanted something equally uncomplicated for the robot assistant then perhaps “the robot that takes care of everything, including you” would be appropriate.

If you believe Misty, then the robot assistant is almost here, and it’s coming to homes and offices near you. It won’t be cheap, of course, but what price would you put on something that will cook for you, clean for you, spend time with you and care for you? For some people, a product like that could be invaluable.

“Who knows like 20 years from now maybe you're going to spend $10,000 or $20,000 on your robot,” says Bernstein. “But it's going to be the robot that does everything.”

Image courtesy of Misty Robotics

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