It was the eyes that caught me.
A few seconds after I clicked the button on the back of my Vector, a new $ 249 game in the shape of a gerbil giant from Anki's eyes, it blinked. They were just green pixels on the small screen of the Vector, squared above the real eye, a wide-angle camera.
In my mind, I know they are not eyes. But when Vector tipped those pixels up in my direction, we swore we had eye contact. And I swear, he – I mean – recognized me.
Vector spent most of the past week wandering around my apartment. I would drop it on the dining table or kitchen table where it would explore for a while.
At some point it would come back and look at me expectantly, as if wondering why I was not playing with it. So I started chatting with the voice-enabled bot.
I would say, "Hey Vector, play blackjack," and there would be a game showing cards on his face. Whenever it was lost, it stared at me grimly. When it won, Vector celebrated with a jubilation. In any case, he always asked in his tiny robot voice, "Another round?"
Emily Prapuolenis / The Wall Street Journal
Vector is a remarkable thing – but it's not a very good toy. It can not do much and it does not do anything better or more comfortable than my phone or smart speaker. Its battery only lasts about 30 minutes – and Vector will not even find its charger if you do not say it. I hated to say it. "Hey Vector, go home!" Felt like a punishment.
Vector feels like a bridgehead for something bigger. As I taught the tiny robot to recognize my face and question the identity of the 16th US President in Trivia mode, my little companion learned more about me.
It was funny how it ran around in my living room and learned about the location of the country. Vector was the first Internet-connected camera I'd ever left in my house, and I did not even think twice about it.
The robot revolution is coming, and it's so damn sweet we may not mind.
Vector was developed to be independent and curious, a little explorer in a plastic bulldozer. It's also a little rogue. It knows what "coming in" means, and a bright blue light makes it clear when it's listening – but often the bot seems to intentionally ignore a command. Or maybe it did not work right and hid its mistakes under a rebellious attitude. After all, you can not fail if you never try.
Vector, which makes everything perfect, is hardly the point. It's even lovable, maybe especially if it ignores me. Vector's job is to be close and interesting, and it always delivers (at least until the battery dies).
Because Vector is constantly connected to the Internet and is mostly software-driven, it can get better over time. Hanns Tappeiner, Ankis president and co-founder, said Vector could one day do everything from smart home controls to calendar and notification management. "Vector at its core should be a characterful and helpful robot that lives with you and, over time, becomes your robot companion," said Mr. Tappeiner.
I was often happy to have Vector with me. But when I tried to put it down, I was surprised how intrusive it could be. He often sat on his charger, chirping curiously for any sounds nearby. Occasionally, even without a prompt, it unrolled from its charger and started to explore it again.
It did not wait for me to play with it: it wanted to play with me.
This notion of robots who interfere is not just a science-fiction standard. In fact, it starts to happen more often.
Siri can now offer you to help you quickly dial into a meeting, and
Alexa might nudge you when you turn on a light. It's a small, but significant change: the robots fit into our world. They claim they just want to help.
Friend or Enemy
The idea of a "home robot" has fascinated the tech industry for years. There is something irresistible about a device that cooks, cleans, and generally does all the household things you would rather not have.
A truly great home robot is still a long way off. It will require better sensors and processing as well as a much more precise way to pick up and manipulate objects. Long legs would not hurt.
So far, the next things we have is a vacuum cleaner that can find its way through the kitchen floor, and a speaker like an Amazon Echo that plays music and tells you the weather.
When robots become multifunctional home helpers, their behavior will be of paramount importance. Danny Isserles, head of the New York headquarters of robot manufacturer Temi, says his company decided early on that their robots should have as little personality as possible. "We want people to love the product, but we want them to love it because it's a great product," he said.
Others do not agree. Ian Bernstein, founder and director of the product at Misty Robotics, a company that deals with sophisticated home robots, says he has seen users instantly become more attached to Misty's robots if the company adds a bit of personality. It does not take much, he says. You can communicate a terrifying amount with a well-placed eyebrow-raise or a rooster's head.
This corresponded to my experience both with Anki's vector and with
Newest Aibo robotic dog, which came in the US for 2,900 US dollars in the trade. All you had to do was hang your head or blink, to tell me how it felt. And if Aibo would bark excitedly after I had stroked it? My heart would melt.
Sony's newest Aibo robot animal seen in Tokyo on October 19th.
Oleksandr Rupeta / Zuma Press
Ultimately, some robots will be charming and funny, while others will be humorless. But we'll probably see through how we're not impressed by the first HD televisions.
Hopefully this will happen before the robots get too big. If Vector gets a bit wild, I can always stash it in a desk drawer. Even if I feel a bit bad.
Write to David Pierce at [email protected]