CES 2024

Why Personal Robots Are the Sci-Fi Pipe Dream We Just Can’t Quit

From Astro to Asimo, the dream of personal robots is still just as sci-fi as ever.

ST QUENTIN, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 25:  Honda Motors demonstrates its ASIMO robot during the 'Robonumeriq...
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CES 2024

Sci-fi tropes find their way into tech all the time.

There are holograms (looking at you, Humane), personal AI assistants (not HAL, thank God), flying cars (sort of), creepy AI, and the list goes on.

But if there's one trope that has really endured, both in the world of sci-fi and consumer tech, it’s robots — especially the domestic kind. Robots that do your chores; robots that drive you to work; robots that watch your kids and then try to murder your family. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve heard this story before.

Clearly, in the back of lots of inventors and big tech companies’ minds — Amazon, Tesla, and Ford to name a few — it all comes back to robots, too. That’s why, with the help of their expertise and unparalleled capital, we now live in a world where there’s a robot in every home so that you never have to do another chore ever again — wait a second...

Robot Versus Reality

Sorry if I spoiled it for you, but as you may or may not have noticed, we do not live in the proffered sci-fi utopia (or dystopia for that matter) where at-home robots are picking up our trash or our clothes or even existing physically in time and space as we hoped they would.

And as much as I’d love to say, “Well, the technology just isn’t there,” our dearth of at-home robots isn’t for lack of effort. Big tech companies have taken plenty of stabs at this point. I’m talking big, big tech, too — like Jeff Bezos big.

Amazon’s Astro never really made it to market despite being a highlight of the company’s annual hardware dump.


Remember Astro? Yeah, me either — or barely at least. As a refresher, Astro was announced in 2021 as part of Amazon’s giant gadget fiesta and was billed as a do-it-all at-home robot that could bring you drinks, tell you the weather, show you security cam footage, even emote at you, which is either cute or creepy depending on your level of trust with Amazon’s technology.

It was (like lots of current robo-butler offerings) a smart home hub on wheels with a nice little digital face for emoting. A cute, practical companion ready to be two-day delivered straight to your doorstep.

In theory, Asto could be useful, I guess. But Astro, however cute and eager to help, has found itself buried in the sands of time and the perennial deluge of Alexa-imbued products. Another L for home robots — and Amazon isn’t alone.

Samsung’s Ballie is presumably getting layoff drunk at the robo-bar with Astro as we speak. For the uninitiated, Ballie was an aptly named little sphere that Samsung designed to fill a similar purpose, though with a bit more companionship in mind. Some people want a little Shih Tzu afoot, nipping at their heels and begging for bacon scraps. Samsung thought other people wanted a grapefruit-sized robot ball.

As far as I know, the big difference here is that people are still buying Shih Tzus.

Not even cuteness could save Samsung’s Ballie.


And the list goes on: Astro, Ballie, Asimo, Aibo, this toilet paper-delivering robot from Charmin. You get the point. And somehow, despite a growing mass grave for felled or under-achieving at-home robots, big tech is still trying. Tesla is possibly the highest-profile example of the next big home robot push.

Optimus, as its robot is called, is less cute than its counterparts, to be sure, but probably a more perfect encapsulation of the sci-fi pipe dream. It’s a humanoid robot that stands on two legs which Telsa says could have applications in fields like home care. The results so far appear more like a toddler-like Terminator that, as far as we know, can barely walk, let alone make me a hearty soup from scratch.

While we don’t have an end to Optimus’ story just yet (this big-boy bot is still very much a work in progress), I think — if history is any indicator — that the story kind of writes itself.

I sound cynical, I know. And if you were expecting me to follow up that statement with a caveat, well, you’d have a better chance of walking into your local Walmart and picking up a robot to do your chores that isn’t a vacuum. Try it; I dare you.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the theoretical magic of robot butlers just as much as the next millennial who grew up watching Jetsons re-runs, but there’s a fatal flaw in the grand design of all this future-forward posturing. Look around your room, the answer could likely be staring you right in your robot-less face.

Too Much Tech

It’s easy to forget that we have so much tech in our homes nowadays. I’m an outlier, of course, as someone who eats and breathes this stuff, but even the average person is filled to the gills with gadgets compared to 30 years ago.

Take my mother and father’s house, for example. There’s a smart thermostat, several Alexa-equipped Echo smart speakers, smart blinds, smart TVs, smart lights, and even a smart home hub for keeping track of all that Internet of Things (IoT) excess I just listed.

Tesla’s Optimus does make a decent showroom fixture, I’ll give it that.

VCG/Visual China Group/Getty Images

This is all real, practical stuff that exists on the cheap, inside homes across the world. And while it’s sometimes too much, it actually all makes sense. Voice assistants aren’t perfect by any means, but I’ve been shouting at a piece of plastic to turn my lights on and off for a while now, and I don’t intend to go back to the old days.

My point is that we kind of have robots already; the only difference is that they don’t have legs or wheels. Instead, they’re omnipresent in the way that a robot should be without taking up space in your physical world. Sure, they can’t grab you a beer from the fridge, but even if they could, is that really the future worth pouring billions of dollars of R&D into?

I don’t wanna completely rain on the robot parade either. Robots are still hugely important for manufacturing and could have really exciting applications in things like search and rescue or other dangerous jobs (famously, they are pretty decent at diffusing bombs). But with the advancement of AI and IoT technology being what it is, it’s worth questioning whether at-home robots are really as integral to living in the tech-filled utopia we envisioned for ourselves.

And the thing here is... I want to be wrong. I want a robot to deliver my toilet paper, or one to make my dinner; I want to free myself from the scourge of folding my own laundry or chopping my own vegetables. But I’ve seen enough CES to wear my cynic hat comfortably.

And isn’t the robot pipe dream bittersweet in a way? I’ll still be captivated each time a company like LG, for example, makes the annual obligatory run at filling our homes with robots, and I might even cheer the prospect on (quietly, in my own way). But, in my opinion, the only thing better than having a robot is knowing that you don’t even need one at all.

INVERSE brings you everything from the fun and futuristic world of consumer technology at CES 2024. For all the latest technology coverage from the show, go to the INVERSE CES 2024 hub.

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