The robots are coming

| Updated on: Jun 08, 2016




ASUS presents a vision for the future of the connected home with its Zenbo robot

At Computex this year, Taiwanese electronics giant ASUS announced a rash of product launches and refreshes, hogging media attention for the duration of the trade show. However, the only entirely new product that it unveiled was the Zenbo, a robot that has the ability ‘to move independently and understand and respond to spoken commands’.

The motorised personal assistant is more than a simple talking speaker of the kind Google and Amazon have been pushing as the centrepiece of your connected lives. And yet without the crucial addition of limbs with digits and opposable thumbs or indeed a fully-fledged AI brain, it is nowhere close to the humanoid positronic computers from science fiction lore.

Family droid

Jonny Shih, ASUS’ chairman, sees Zenbo as a device that could be useful to the oldest and youngest members of a family. It can help keep track of medicine and exercise schedules for the elderly and tell stories or play interactive games with kids. Of course, this is in addition to the standard set of features that personal digital assistants offer such as streaming media playback, voice activated search and data retrieval. It also has a built-in camera that can be used to capture pictures and videos.

Little is known about the technology that powers the Zenbo, with ASUS playing its cards extremely close to its chest.

Interactions with the BB8-lookalike have been restricted to staged demonstrations, which allow little opportunity to discover its limits and quirks.

What we do know is that it is roughly a meter tall, can recognise people and their voices and move around on wheels, avoiding obstacles using an array of built-in sensors. It responds to voice commands that are preceded by the phrase “Hey Zenbo”. While the demos during Computex showed the robot responding quite well to a standard set of well-intoned commands, Shih insists that Zenbo will get even better at interacting with humans due to the machine learning technologies that power it.

Man and machine

True AI could be a few decades away yet, but devices with limited intelligence that are capable of performing specific tasks well are starting to fundamentally transform our interaction with the digital world. One crucial aspect of Zenbo’s featureset – its ability to interact with other machines – has the potential to be a game-changer. For now, it can communicate with ASUS’ range of smart home devices to control lights, open doors and so on.

It can even monitor for falls using the sudden motion sensor built-in to devices like the ZenWatch.

During the launch event, Shih did hint at allowing third party developers to extend Zenbo’s functionality. If this could translate into a more interoperable robot assistant that could talk to a Nest thermostat and a Hue light-bulb in addition to its ASUS siblings, it could potentially become the (rather goofy) face of the truly connected home.

ASUS has a product with immense potential on its hands. Priced at $599, the Zenbo costs roughly about as much as a good smartphone – indicating that the company wants to target volume rather than make this a niche offering. As one journalist kept insisting throughout the launch event, despite its borderline ridiculous cartoon face, Zenbo could herald the dawn of the robot revolution.

Published on January 20, 2018

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