At CES 2017, a Robot for Every Kind of Loneliness

A depressing future awaits, where we won’t need human contact, and our home devices will be smarter than we are.

Rick Wilking / Reuters,© Rick Wilking / Reuters

LAS VEGAS—“Tickle him,” the man in the green striped tie says.

I’m not sure how to tickle a robot. I haltingly place my hands beneath the small android’s arms, where its ribs would be. The robot’s anime-saucer eyes do not twinkle. Its jointed limbs do not flail. No sounds of simulated joy pierce the cacophony of the convention hall. It’s the night before the official kickoff of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, and thousands of tech journalists from around the world have gathered in an enormous ballroom to drink for free and yell into selfie sticks loud enough to drown out the strangeness of it all.

“You have to press him harder,” the man says.

The AvatarMind iPal(™) Robot For Children, Eldercare, and Hospitality/Retail is the size of a small child. It weighs 28 lbs, has four wheels, and five microphones throughout its body. Its chest is a screen the size of a cell phone. On the screen are several options for children’s entertainment, all in Chinese. It isn’t wearing any clothing; its body is molded into the shape of a cartoon sidekick space costume. I press on the robot’s sides, harder, per the man’s instructions. Still nothing.

“Harder,” the man commands, still good-natured despite my utter shittiness at being a mother to this robot.

I press hard enough, I think, to break it. The robot laughs and resumes moving its arms in a series of nonsensical gestures.

The iPal is designed to “provide companionship” for children and the elderly who don’t get enough attention from other human beings.

It’s currently being tested with patients at a long-term care facility in Ontario. The man in the green striped tie explains that if successful, the elderly and lonely across Canada might soon have access to their own kid-sized companion robot, a little wheeled friend who reminds them to take their pills, calls the ambulance if they fall down, and can be programmed to play entertainment from the 1940’s on its screen or sing old timey songs.

I’m immediately depressed.

The only people at the CES I’ve seen who appear to be older than 65 are the patient women who printed my media badge. But outside of this artificial temporary tech mecca, 46.2 million of the US’s population is over 65 years old. By the year 2040, one in five Americans will be older than 65. My father just turned 60. The idea of, five years from now, gifting him an angel-faced companion robot to remind him to weed the garden and replenish the deer salt lick has never occurred to me before. I picture him cussing the robot out.

Once I’ve met the iPal(™), I can’t get the unseen elderly out of my head. Booths across the convention hall push smart home appliances that will virtually eliminate the need to stand up or walk around or hunt for a remote control. A fridge cam that will send your cell phone a photo of what is inside your refrigerator, so you can remember what to buy at the store. A smart coffee maker. A smart hairbrush. A smart cellulite massager that will shame you if you forget to give yourself a massage with it. A light-up headband that will make your hair grow back. A program that connects all of your smart devices, boasting the tagline “the future of smartness.”

On the way to JFK airport that morning, I passed the rusting skeleton of the old World’s Fairgrounds in Queens. The motto of the 1964 event, attended by more than 50 million people, was “Peace through Understanding.” That was before we’d gone to space. The Ford Mustang was introduced at the exhibition, and Sinclair Oil Company financed the construction and showing of nine life-sized dinosaurs. The Westinghouse Corporation assembled and buried a time capsule that contained credit cards and other newfangled inventions on the fairgrounds, to be opened in the year 6939, a year that seems almost sweetly quixotic now. The ruins of the fair feel like an optimism graveyard. Somebody who had attended that event at exactly my age would be in their 80’s now, the ideal demographic for a companion robot who reminds them to take pills.

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Several feet away from my existential crisis, a human man dressed as a robot fields questions from a gaggle of men with identically unkempt beards and glasses frames. It’s not clear why this robot is there, who he is, what he’s promoting, or why. He could just be a guy who is really psyched about the Consumer Electronics Show.

He is fascinating to the men. Ice clinking in glasses of liquor in one hand and holding cell phones in the other, they work as a team to try to get the robot to break character, like he’s a palace guard in Britain and they’re 15 year olds on a school trip.

The man-robot is a little flashier than the iPal(™), with wraparound shades and metallic blue and silver fabric covering his body. Like the iPal(™), the man dressed as a robot has his feet affixed to a wheeled platform. There’s really no need for two legs, since neither can walk. But this robot has sass. The iPal(™) only has sweetness and those big, empty eyes. The men grow frustrated and move on, to be replaced by a very similar group of men. This renews perpetually as the robot tries to make it down a single aisle of the event.

I wonder if the robot has groupies. I wonder if the handful of women here, driven mad by the smell of convention hall carpet sanitizer and Corona Lite, are titillated by his patience, the same way they’d be excited by the sight of a man caring for a small toddler or puppy without raising his voice.

Or maybe they’d just prefer a robot who would laugh at their jokes, if they only squeeze it hard enough.