Weaving through the crowds of the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, visitors encountered friendly-looking robots that played chess, swayed and played guitar, and offered help with all manner of domestic tasks.
During a trade show dominated by AI's integration in everything from home appliances to self-driving cars, virtual assistants seemed omnipresent, often taking the form of knee-high robots that roamed the convention floor, innocently blinking up at onlookers or shouting greetings from their exhibitor booths. These robots are still far from the humanoid domestic servants often imagined in science fiction movies, but everything about them—their silhouettes, movements, and conversational tone—is meant to relieve some of the friction that people may feel introducing this level of technology into their houses.
This user-friendly anthropomorphism wasn't just relegated to robots at CES. Toyota's much-hyped autonomous concept car, the Concept-i, was billed as "Less of a machine. More of a pal." It had an endearing face to match. The car's headlights resemble adorable amphibian eyes, each a glowing window into the soul of Yui—the name of the AI that is integrated into the car. Yui is the ego to the Concept-i's id.
Ian Cartabiano, the studio chief designer at Toyota’s Calty design facility in Southern California, says he and his team created Yui using the 12 steps of animation that Disney developed in the 1930s to make inanimate objects seem lifelike. Think of Yui as the hyper-futuristic version of Herbie, everyone's favorite sentient Love Bug. Yui will cheerily greet you as you climb into the car. It will play soft music if it feels that you're stressed. It will gently shake your chair if it senses you're feeling sleepy. Contrary to conventional car design, the Calty design team developed the car's AI and its interior functions first—these then informed the design of the vehicle's anthropomorphic exterior.
Integrating AI into autonomous vehicles was another major trend at CES this year: Nvidia and Audi released their AI Co-Pilot, a car they aim to have on the road by 2020, and Honda showed a concept car with AI in the form of an "emotion engine," which learns by detecting the emotions behind a driver's decisions. The reasoning behind these emotive interfaces? Owning a car that's intelligent could be intimidating for some drivers, particularly those who enjoy driving and aren't particularly sold on self-driving cars. Making the car personable, says Cartabiano, is "a really great way to feel an affinity for an AI."
The same could be said about connected home technology. "There's a natural unease people have with having a robot in your home," says Bill Webb, partner at the San Francisco-based product design firm Huge. Webb headed up the design for the crowdfunded robot Jibo two years ago and watched at CES this year as similar designs popped up everywhere, from LG's Hub Robot to Mayfield Robotics' Kuri.
Yet Webb predicts that the trend of cute, anthropomorphized electronics is just a transition period, helping people get over the hump to embrace new technology. In fact, he and his team ultimately reduced the cartoonish-ness of Jibo's original design and opted for a pared-down silhouette that still resembles a human head and torso.
After all, good industrial design is capable of making users fall in love with products that aren't designed in our likeness. Apple is probably the most-cited example of this. Steve Jobs transformed the cold, utilitarian computer—essentially a box, a keyboard, and some wires—into a product to which people felt deeply emotionally connected. And he did it without tacking on some sweetly blinking eyes.
"It’s almost like attaching ourselves to a cliché in order to make people comfortable with it," says Webb. "We're playing into a cliché to get people comfortable with the technology. Shiny white plastic, food services—it's exactly what you think a robot should be."