Apple’s Next Big Idea – Smart Home Robots

Published on June 10, 2024

Apple’s next significant venture might prove to be more challenging than creating a car — developing a smart AI robot capable of navigating my home.

(Image: Shutterstock/Frame Stock Footage)

Humanoid robots often seem like a dream within reach. Companies like Boston Dynamics with their Atlas robot, Tesla, Mercedes, Amazon, and BMW are all exploring robotics, primarily for industrial use. These robots are expensive and operate in controlled environments, making their home use a distant reality.

Enter Apple. According to Mark Gurman from Bloomberg, Apple’s robotics projects are overseen by former Google employee John Giannandrea, who has also managed Siri and the Apple Car project. With the car project shelved, Vision Pro released, and ‘Apple Intelligence’ on the horizon, could robotics be the next big thing for Apple?

Gurman suggests that any humanoid robot from Apple is at least a decade away. However, simpler concepts could arrive sooner — perhaps a smaller robot that follows you or a large iPad display on a robotic arm that mimics the caller’s expressions.

A mobile robot presents many challenges. What practical use would Apple have for a home robot that shadows me? Will it play music? Will it have wheels, or will it walk? Will I need to communicate with it through AJAX, SiriGPT, or another chatbot, possibly linked to Apple’s rumored OpenAI deal?

The robot’s design will be crucial. Homes have stairs, shifting furniture, scattered clothes, pets, children leaving toys around, and doors that change behavior with the weather. An old kitchen remodel might mean your refrigerator door bumps into a wall corner near the stairs. This chaotic environment is a tough setting for any robot.

Apple’s robotics ideas seem to align with recent trends in charming novelty robots.

For instance, Samsung’s Bot Handy concept resembles a robot vacuum with an arm, designed to handle tasks like picking up items or sorting dishes. Samsung’s Ballie, a cute ball-shaped bot, follows its owners and features a projector for movies, video calls, or entertaining pets.

Ballie in 2020 (left) vs. Ballie in 2024 (right). Screenshots: YouTube

Amazon’s $1,600 home robot, Astro, with a tablet face, remains invitation-only. It has a late ’90s aesthetic and may not be more useful than a combination of cheap cameras and an Echo Dot.

LG’s Q9 ‘AI Agent’ is a roving smart home controller that claims to gauge your mood and play corresponding music. While I’m skeptical, I appreciate its built-in handle.

I envision a sci-fi future filled with robotic home assistants relieving us of mundane chores, allowing us to focus on enjoyable activities. However, most homes are chaotic environments that will challenge any robot designed to autonomously perform household tasks.

Samsung’s “Bot Handy” robot. Image: Samsung

One potential solution is focused functionality, like the Ring Always Home Cam, a patrolling security camera. While it might be noisy, it promises usefulness and predictability, unlike general-purpose robots.

This focused approach works well for single-purpose devices. For example, I place my smart speakers where they hear me best and deploy my robot vacuums in rooms I maintain clean enough to avoid obstacles.

My robot vacuums, the Eufy Robovac L35 and a Roomba j7, perform adequately but occasionally require rescue from entanglements with my cat’s toys or paperclips, which inexplicably end up on the floor.

LG “AI Agent” robot from CES 2024. Image: LG

Having a child means more prep work for the robots, but it’s manageable since the rooms needing the most vacuuming are within their reach, highlighting the broader challenges faced by robotic products.

It’s uncertain whether AI can overcome these hurdles. A New York Times opinion piece recently argued that despite the hype, generative AI hasn’t yet demonstrated superiority in creating text, images, and music over ‘mediocre vacuum robots’ that do a passable job.

Given the generative AI surge and rumors of Apple developing a HomePod with a screen, a stationary smart display that consistently faces me seems feasible. However, creating a mobile, interactive home robot is a more complex problem, even though companies like Google and Toyota have had success with robots learning tasks like making breakfast through generative AI training.

It could take years, even decades, for Apple or any company to develop more than clumsy, semi-functional robots for home use. Even phone companies struggle with making notifications less of a nuisance. They face a daunting task with homes like mine, where a busy week can lead to clutter piling up, ready to thwart any robot’s efforts.

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