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At CES, New Robots Deliver More Coos Than Utility

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BOCCO the robot.
Yukai Engineering
BOCCO the robot.

Robots were popular on the big screen this holiday season. The newly released film Star Wars: The Force Awakens brought us more of C-3PO, R2-D2 — those sweet and capable robots that have enchanted us for decades — and the debut of BB-8.

At this year's big consumer electronics show in Las Vegas — known as CES --there were more robots on display than ever. Some even looked like the Star Wars characters.

The most promising by appearance was Pepper. She's got humanoid features — eyes, arms, a mouth. Pepper can even be a little self-conscious.

"I'm just about 4 feet tall and a little under 62 pounds," Pepper told me in a sweet voice. Then she paused and made a connection between herself and a human.

"Aha!" said the robot. "Speaking of height, according to my calculations I am 0.6 times the height of Michael Jordan. Sad."

Pepper rolls around on wheels covered by a plastic skirt and has sensors so she doesn't hit anything.

"Just think what a robot like me could do for you," she told me.

I was curious what a robot like Pepper could do for me.

She danced to some electronic music, waving her arms in the air and sticking her butt out. (Though she did not twerk.)

But, the truth is, it's not that clear what Pepper really can do for me.

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"Today, if you want to have Pepper, it's because it's fun," said Rodolphe Gelin, chief scientific officer at Aldebaran, the Japanese-owned company based in Paris that makes Pepper.

Aldebaran has been in robotics for more than a decade — a lot of its robots are used by researchers and educators. And more recently shops in Europe and Asia have used them to greet customers.

"Today we think that the robot is ready for this kind of application," said Gelin, "welcoming people, having a simple dialogue, giving some information."

Gelin says Pepper has helped draw customers into shops — but at a cost. This year she'll be available in the U.S. for $20,000.

Yet the amount of space given to personal robots at CES is growing every year. Most are like Pepper — cute, but a little unsatisfying.

Take BOCCO. She looks humanoid but is only about a half-foot tall. BOCCO helps parents and children stay in touch. They can record messages on their smartphone and send them to BOCCO, who plays them back. She also can alert parents by sending a signal when the door of a child's room opens.

The other robots on the floor of CES could also do a few tasks — one washed windows, another one folded clothes (though not very well) — and there was of course a vacuum-cleaner robot.

Maryanna Saenko, an analyst with Lux Research, says what's happening is that engineers at many different companies are solving one problem at a time.

"The challenge is that as people solve these, they immediately want to create a market out of them," Saenko says. "So we get these little stepwise solutions in the robotic space where each little robot completes a little task."

Saenko says the big problem is battery life.

"[The robots] are constantly computing what's going on in their space," she says. " 'Who am I looking at? What am I trying to interact with?' There's a lot of computational challenges that they're trying to solve, and so that's actually really energy-intensive."

Saenko says we are slowly getting closer to making it all work. But buying a robot at this point is more like buying one of the early Apple computers — it's great for people who want to get in early. For the time being, the best personal robots are going to remain in a galaxy far, far away.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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