‘Siri’ comes to life

  • By Suzanne Roberts

zenbo fmaily

Meet ‘Zenbo’ the artificial intelligence family assistant that costs less than a new cell phone

The Taiwanese electronics manufacture Asus has unveiled a family assistance ‘droid’ or robot if you prefer called Zenbo, which can talk, control your home and provide assistance when needed all for the cost of a mid range smartphone.

The $599 (circa £410/€530) robot rolls around on two spherical ‘wheels’ similar to some vacuum cleaner balls, with cameras, and an oblong head fitted with an interactive colour touchscreen displaying a face with emotions. It is capable of independent intuitive movement, can respond to voice commands and has both entertainment protocols for keeping children amused and home care systems to help look after elderly people.

Jonney Shih, the chairman of Asus said: “For decades, humans have dreamed of owning such a companion: one that is smart, dear to our hearts, and always at our disposal. Our ambition is to enable robotic computing for every household.”

Apple and Api AI offer visual and voice services which interact with hardware and software simultaneously on multiple devices such as desktops, tablets and smart phones. Such artificial intelligence currently is limited to managing and making appointments, calls, messages, emails etc. The software can make jokes, play games (Api AI) and learn and adapt to your idiosyncrasies such as the tendency for multilingual people to transplant foreign words into their speech (Api AI).

The very idea of taking such artificial intelligence and placing it into what would otherwise need to be a drone (remote controlled from a distance by a human operator or pre-programmed computer script), to create an artificially intelligent ‘droid’ is not a new idea at all. Engineers, medical professional and scientists have been fascinated by the potentials of this technology for decades.

Whilst Japanese research groups and companies have produced a small number of highly sophisticated droids over the years the sheer costs involved stop them from becoming a commercial reality any time soon. Asus have taken cost into consideration and offered a ‘droid lite’ if you will, a basic droid with key functionality which most households can afford.

Zenbo will remind older people of doctor’s appointments or medication schedules, and will monitor the home for emergency situations such as falls. If it detects a problem, it will notify carers and allow them to pilot the robot remotely, using the camera to inspect the area.

Taiwanese Asus hopes that children will also look fondly to Zenbo, which can sing, dance, tell stories and play games, while controlling the surrounding environment, including the lights. Some may argue this is a novelty factor, get busy working parents will appreciate the assistance, dimming lights in preparation for bedtimes and reading stories.

For adults, Asus is pitching Zenbo as a moving Amazon Echo or Google Home competitor, capable of taking control of various internet of things devices, from televisions, home media hubs, lighting, security systems, IP Cameras to thermostats. In a demonstration with Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s new president, Zenbo recognised a command for music and started playing, even over the sounds of an exhibition crowd.

Think of the internet of things as the wireless wire that connects all of the smart technology in your home, office and portable devices including your car, as long as they are synced and have a wifi or data signal they are connected, Zenbo can monitor and control these for you, instead of using a complex analog or digital interface, you can use voice commands like with Api AI or Apple’s Siri.

The key difference however is the automated motor skills what Zenbo possesses. Carebots have existed for years, but they are remote pilot drones or pre-programmed such as the mechanical arms in automobile factories. Zenbo has the ability to learn via voice commands and roam the environment it is in autonomously. Well, semi-autonomously as Asus is keen to point out to those of us paranoid of a machine upriseing after watching too many sci fi movies, we assume the user places restrictions and conditions on movements thus limiting the level of autonomy that Zenbo has.

The voice-controlled home assistant market is rapidly growing, with Amazon’s Echo making waves as is Google’s recent foray with Home. But most attempts are based around a fixed speaker that sits in the home and can be shouted at by owners. Highly limiting, impractical and rather uncivilized.

Only SoftBank’s Pepper robot, which is currently available in Japan costing 198,000 yen (£1,220), is close to what Asus is looking to offer, with articulated arms, cameras and sensors in a head and a screen on its chest. The articulated arms giving the advantage over Zenbo, but not without the added cost and troubles of importing one from Japan for those of us in the rest of the world.

Whether anyone will buy a general purpose robot that cannot physically help with tasks around the home, only through voice and sound interactions, remains to be seen. For Asus and other electronics manufacturers, in-home robots are still an experiment.

If they can capture the same enthusiasm for interaction and usefulness to home owners as Amazon’s Echo, they could find success. Like any other product, these robots need a reason to exist to avoid becoming expensive novelty toys. It would seem that the death of Zenbo already lies in it’s inability to physically assist, a problem competitors in neighboring Japan have already solved. For the rest of the world it looks like we have a simple choice, use a fixed impractical software system such as that offered by Amazon, use the portable, always with you built in systems on our smart phones such as Siri, or Api AI’s Speak To It Assistant, spend a large amount of money importing a more advanced physical system from Japan or give Zenbo a try, a compromise between the high cost physical droids of Japan and the low budget software systems from the rest of the world. Whether Zenbo proves to be a compromise that captures the hearts and imagination of the public or not will have to wait to be seen.


S.Roberts@theinternational.org.uk