APPS & BOTS
It’s been an ongoing goal of mainstream culture to convince us that we want AI companions, and with its announcement of lil’ buddy Zenbo at this week’s Computex conference in Taipei, Asus confirmed that it still believes this to be.
Any doubt that the company is attempting to popularize a loco motorized, talking version of your Apple Watch should be dispelled by the 11 minute mini-movie they released to celebrate Zenbo’s birth. The clip features a slacker writer dad forever in his bathrobe, a distressingly productive mother, a dapper grandpa, tech savvy son and a smizing pre-teen who must take a family portrait.
Saving the day, of course, is Zenbo, who is basically Wally’s cousin who doesn’t get to save the planet nor make other robot friends.
Zenbo costs about as much as a smart phone, $599 (“WOW,” commented Asus’ chairman since 1993, Jonney Shih, upon announcing this fact), and performs many of the same features. It serves as an entertainment console, has calendar functions so that it can remind you of appointments and tasks. The little guy’s also capable of running your house, similar to Amazon Echo and Google Home. It can turn lights off and on, manipulate temperature, lock and unlock doors and power down appliances.
Zenbo’s true destination may be senior living facilities. Following up on the success of Hasbro’s companion cat line and TV-famous Paro the seal, the robot is equipped to remember doctor appointments and prescription schedules, as well as contact the appropriate help should an elderly owner fall down. (Asus did not offer detailed technological explanations of how any of this will work in Shih’s peppy presentation).
But … who said we wanted our tech to come with a face?
“For decades, humans have dreamed of owning such a companion,” said Shih during Zenbo’s Computex presentation. “One that is smart, dear to our hearts, and always at our disposal. Our ambition is to enable robotic computing for every household.”
The whys of this are not supplied.
This is far from the only personal robot being developed by tech players. Softbank’s Pepper the robot staffed an entire iPhone store in January. It would seem that the industry is on a mission to fulfill the promises made by Rosie the Robot on “The Jetsons” animated TV show. Unable to provide warm, fuzzy feelings unassisted to your kids and elderly parents? Go get a robot!
But … has anyone asked the seniors just how human-like they want their helpers? Studies show that they’re down for the assistance, but are a little wary of the whole ‘bots taking over the planet thing.
And there are plenty of robot toys out there for kids that have much clearer links to education and that don’t cost $599.
“Don’t be nervous, you’re a big boy,” Shih told Zenbo when the ‘bot mentioned he was feeling a bit anxious in front of the Computex crowd.
It seemed rather unfair to set the little thing up like that — after all, it didn’t asked to be born into irrelevance.