The fantasy of having your own benign, high-tech, vaguely humanoid robot servant goes back at least to Robby the Robot, the star of the 1956 science-fiction classic Forbidden Planet. Robby could cook, clean, carry several tons of cargo, and whip up anything from diamonds to booze from inside his body. He also followed Asimov’s laws of robotics.
UBTECH Robotics is taking one small step toward a real Robby with their Alpha2 domestic robot, “the first ever designed for practical household service and companionship,” according to the company. UBTECH promises that the Alpha2 will talk, respond to verbal instructions, take pictures and send them the Facebook, protect your home, and even tell bedtime stories to your children.
The Alpha2 won’t be ready for the holidays. In fact, UBTECH has started a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo to raise money for the Alpha2’s development. The company hopes to deliver the robot in the second quarter of 2016, with an anticipated asking price between $1500 and $2000. Early backers, however, will be able to preorder one for just $500.
Alpha2 looks mildly human and, I admit, thoroughly adorable. Twenty servos provide the joints that make it move. It’s small, being a little more than 17 inches tall and weighing about five pounds. Clearly, when it comes to household security, Alpha2 won’t have the same effect as an angry Doberman.
So how will it protect your home? According to UBTECH CEO James Chao, whom I interviewed via email, it can “activate the alarm once you leave your home…. It can also time the alarm to set once you go to bed. In addition, Alpha2 is noise activated so [it] will alert you if it hears unusual sounds.”
You may have noticed that both Chao and I are reluctant to give this anthropomorphized device a gender. That’s the owner’s prerogative. Users “will have options to select the voice of their choice from the user manual.”
According to Chao, whatever voice you pick “provides you with a general companion feeling which phones and tablets cannot” match as you talk back and forth with the device. But will the voice sound like a real, emotional person? Chao says it can, but admits there’s room for improvement. “ A big part of our campaign is attracting the developer community to assist in these areas.”
The Alpha2 will run on Android 4.4 (KitKat).
Clearly, the Alpha2 has a long way to go before it can match Robby. But it just might be an important step in the right direction—a step made by its own little feet.
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