At CES 2019, robots will be smarter, cuter and cooler than ever

Amid the TVs, the laptops and the Alexa-enabled everything, CES also lets you come face to face with the latest robots.

Sometimes, in the case of cute personal and home robots, this means quite literally looking them in the eye. For the more industrial robots, it’s more like observing them from a safe distance.

In recent years we’ve seen even the biggest consumer electronics companies, such as LG and Sony, put robots front and center during their grand on-stage presentations at the Las Vegas tech show. Equally exciting, if a little harder to find, are the cool robotics startups, which are working on niche applications, including for health care or spatial awareness technology that allow them to move autonomously.

They’ll all be at the show this year, and team CNET will be scouring the floor to make sure we meet each and every one of them.

Digital BFFs and playtime pals

Perhaps the robot we’re most excited to meet at CES this year is Lovot, a new companion robot from Japanese startup Groove X. Groove X’s founder, Kaname Hayashi, is known as the “father of Pepper” (you know Pepper, everyone knows Pepper) after creating the iconic humanoid robot during his time at Softbank.

In an interview with CNET more than two years ago, Hayashi described a robot designed to cure loneliness that he and his team were working on, but didn’t offer any details about its physical appearance other than the likelihood it would be cute. That robot — Lovot — is finally ready to greet the world.

The puppy-eyed bot looks a little a fleecy baby sloth, which can move around independently on retractable wheels and interact with you via sound, touch and physical movements. It’s designed for one thing and one thing only: for you to love it.

Another companion robot we’re hoping to meet at the show is an adorable pet called KiKi from Zoetic AI. If Sony’s Aibo failed to push your buttons at CES 2018 because you’re more of a cat person than a dog person, then KiKi could be perfect for you. With distinctive feline features, KiKi is a stationary desktop pal who just wants to be petted.

KiKi by Zoetic AI is a cute new robot pet.

Zoetic AI

There will likely be a bunch of robots at the show designed with companionship in mind, but some will be geared toward education. Softbank is due to showcase how it uses robotics to enhance STEM education, and we’re looking forward to taking a close look at modular robotics toys from Mabot and Modi, both of which are CES Innovation Award Honorees this year.

At your service

At CES 2019, there will be a huge variety of devices that fall into the category of service robots, from robot vacs to use at home, to business-owned robots designed to help you out in public places, such as retail stores and airports.

LG is going all out on robotics at the show again in 2019, showing off the updated version of the CLOi SuitBot, which supports the lower body to reduce stress when lifting and bending. Additionally it will showcase enhancements to its PorterBot, ServeBot and CartBot, all of which draw on the latest developments in AI.

lg-cloi-suitbot-005

LG wants to lend a helping… leg.

LG

“The progress made by our entire robot lineup points to our commitment to deliver a robotic solution for the real world in the very near future,” said Roh Jin-seo, head of LG’s robotics business, in a pre-CES press release.

Softbank’s Pepper will be back at CES this year, but it won’t be alone. Instead, Softbank will be demonstrating the ways in which two different robots can work together to speed up automated activities. We’ll see Pepper collaborate with Tally of Simbe Robotics to perform a number of retail-based tasks to show how it’s important for different smart technology to interoperate.

“Automation is going to play a huge part in tomorrow’s workforce, where the next generation of robots isn’t working to replace people but working alongside people to improve their lives and enhance their jobs,” said Softbank’s chief strategy officer, Steve Carlin, over email.

Other service-type robots to look out for on the show floor include updated versions of ShopPal, a shopping companion, and FoldiMate, a robot that folds your laundry for you (but sadly doesn’t pick clothes up off the floor just yet), along with some cutting-edge robo-vacs from iRobot and Coral.

Mad new skillz

We won’t just see conventional robots at CES 2019. We’ll also see a bunch of nontraditional robots — drones, arms and vehicles — that will often be used to show off new skills and developments in artificial intelligence.

After unveiling four robots at last year’s CES, Honda is back this year with more robotics, most of which are souped-up versions of 2018’s offerings.

The Honda Autonomous Work Vehicle is a rugged self-driving car in miniature, designed to tackle tricky terrain or hazardous environments, providing assistance to the likes of firefighters and rescue workers.

honda-hawv-promo

Honda’s unmanned ATV.

Honda

Honda will also show off its artificial intelligence development with the PATH (Predicting Action of The Human) Bot, which uses cameras and sensors to make its way through crowds, and with the Honda RaaS (Robotics as a Service) Platform. A little bit like what Softbank’s doing, this will demonstrate the importance of developing robots that can communicate and share data with one another.

This display of “cloud robotics” will be an important trend at CES this year, according to James Kuffner, CEO at the Toyota Research Institute, who will be appearing on a number of robotics-based panels at the show.

“Modern, connected robot systems are no longer isolated and limited by onboard computation, memory, and data storage capacity,” he said in an interview. “Whether it be self-driving cars or home robots, the technology is rapidly improving. The future is truly bright for cloud-enabled robots with fleet learning capabilities.”

British company Cambridge Consultants is also due to showcase some new skills for robots of the future. One piece of robotic software, called DeepRay, learns what real-world scenes and objects look like, and promises to outperform humans and existing machine vision approaches in reconstructing clear images under difficult conditions.

Another project, under the name of Gerard, allows a robot to autonomously explores physical spaces, becoming aware of where it’s been, its current location and objects in its environment. With all of these capabilities combined, Gerard aims to understand who you are, what you’re saying and what your gestures mean in the context of your surroundings — allowing you to give the robot instructions while pointing at something.

All that just scratches the surface of what will be on show at CES this year. Also on our radar are robotic arms from Ohmni and Naver, along with MITO, an underwater drone from Navatics with a 4K camera and advanced active stabilization technology.

The latest innovations in AI and engineering mean there will be an endless parade of different, often brand-new robots on display, so make sure you keep your eyes on CNET to catch them all throughout the week.

My week with Aibo: What it’s like to live with Sony’s robot dog.

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