Today’s robots are more intelligent than ever, learning to respond to their environment and perform a range of tasks autonomously, without human intervention. As such, robots are now entirely commonplace in sectors like manufacturing; the International Federation of Robotics estimated that 1.7 million new robots would be installed in factories around the world by 2020.
Then we have the rise of collaborative robots, or cobots, which are explicitly designed to work alongside humans as helpful robotic colleagues. In this way, the future of many industries may mean humans and robots working seamlessly side by side.
It’s no wonder, then, that robotics is considered a major, transformative technology trend – one that, along with rising automation, will no doubt shape the future of work. So far so serious. But there’s also a lighter side to robotics. Take a look at the latest robots being unveiled and there are plenty of examples that make us smile or raise a baffled eyebrow in wonder.
Here are seven of my favourite weird and wonderful robots around right now.
1. Luka is an interactive reading companion for kids – or, to put it another way, a cute owl-shaped little robot that reads picture books out loud. Put an open book in front of Luka, and it starts reading what’s on the page. Turn the page, and it carries on reading for you. Luka’s makers say it can recognize over 15,000 English-language picture books, and 45,000 Chinese picture books. And for books that aren’t in Luka’s existing library, you can read and record any other picture book, allowing Luka to read that book aloud in the future, in your voice!
2. Could the Robo-Shark autonomous underwater vehicle be the future of naval surveillance? At the very least, it surely has the coolest name in the robot world. Robo-Shark is, as you might expect, an actual robot shark, measuring six feet in length and weighing in at 130 pounds, with a fin tail propulsion system that lets it glide silently through the water – ideal for stealthy surveillance. Fully customisable, it can be fitted with a camera system, communications system, or sensors, and it can travel up to 6,500 feet while being controlled remotely from a base station.
3. If underwater surveillance isn’t your thing, how about a nice game of ping pong? A one-of-a-kind, ping pong-playing robot called Forpheus could give you a game while automatically adjusting its playing level to match your abilities (just in case you were worried about being thrashed by a robot). Forpheus has a robotic arm that swings the paddle, a “brain” that tells it how to hit the ball, and multiple cameras to help it identify ping pong balls and track its opponent’s movements. The ability to adjust to each opponent’s playing level is all down to AI.
4. Lovot was a huge hit at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and I can see why. This small, huggable robot looks a bit like a penguin on wheels (if penguins had the face of a sloth), and it has one purpose in life – to give love. At CES, Lovot wheeled around the show blinking its big, cute eyes at visitors, and flapping its arms when it wanted to be picked up and cuddled.
5. If there’s one thing busy restaurants need, it’s a robotic cat waiter. Yes, you read that correctly, a robotic cat waiter. The BellaBot autonomous food delivery robot has the head of a cat (obviously) and a body comprised of shelves for carrying food trays. Thanks to cameras and sensors, it can navigate a busy restaurant floor and deliver food to waiting customers – miaowing to let customers know to take their orders from its shelves. BellaBot will also purr when customers give it a head-scratch. Good, er, robot kitty waiter.
6. While we’re on the subject of cats, the Petit Qoobo is a furry robot pet designed for people who can’t own a real pet because of allergies, their living situation, or their busy career. Think of a headless furry ball with a wagging tail, and you’ve got the somewhat disturbing picture.
7. As someone who’s been writing about technology trends for years, i’ve been waiting a long time to write the words “toilet robot”. Finally, my dream has come true. The RollBot toilet robot, developed by Charmin, is designed to solve the problem of being stuck on the toilet without a toilet roll insight. RollBot, a tiny cartoon bear on wheels, trundles to the rescue, balancing a fresh roll on its head. Surely civilization can advance no further. Our work here is done.