The aisles of CES, the world’s biggest technology trade show, used to feature a mass of scantily clad women touting the latest televisions and gadgets. The disappearance of so-called “booth babes”: from this year’s CES, held in Las Vegas in January, was certainly a cause for real celebration. However, in their place appeared a tireless army of “booth bots”, promising a cyborg revolution to simplify our lives. CES had robots to fetch your drinks, secure your home, carry your shopping, restock your kitchen and, of course, to drive your car.
Why suffer the indignity of cleaning up after your dog when a robot can do it for you? In fact, why have a flesh-and-blood pet at all when Sony’s latest Aibo robo-pooch can recognise people, respond to tickles, learn tricks – and will never bite the postman? If the super-cute Aibo is likely to attract rather than repel burglars, the same can’t be said of the creepily armless Walker. This bipedal bot will shuffle around the house, even up and down stairs, beaming video to a smartphone. To offset this sinister snooping, its manufacturer Ubtech promises that Walker will also be able to dance and play soccer. LG had a wheeled robot butler to serve drinks, and a porter robot to carry your bags on holiday. There was even a voice-controlled robot, Aeolus, with arms to open doors and pick up objects around the house. But ask when these robots will be available, or how much they might cost, and the image of a pampered future recedes. Most manufacturers admit their bots are still prototypes, to arrive in a few years’ time, and with price tags closer to a new car than a gadget. In reality, fetching a beer or carrying a suitcase through a station is incredibly difficult for even state-of-the-art robots. There are serious limitations on battery life for outdoor bots, and safety concerns with any device strong enough to conduct useful tasks.
The more I saw at CES, the more I realised that booth bots have a lot in common with booth babes. Both were supposed to titillate the show’s dominant demographic (70 per cent male), and to help them imagine a clean, gleaming future that is soothingly familiar, just a little sexier or more convenient. Our real high-tech future, thankfully, is likely to look messier, more diverse – and much more human.