Valley Voice
Flirt with robots!

From the electronic cat in our living room to the autonomous car that drives us to work – the „South by Southwest“ tech conference in Austin shows how robots can enrich our lives in the future.
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Everybody knows that there are basically two kinds of robots: evil Arnold Schwarzenegger and good Arnold Schwarzenegger. Nothing has influenced the image of robots more than the “Terminator“ movies. Since the science fiction epic from the 1980s we know that these electronic guys can be incredibly dangerous, even if they seem friendly at first sight.

The same is true for the image Germans and Austrians have around the world. Since “The Terminator“, we are famous for having not a lot more than one facial expression – which of course fits a robot perfectly.

At „South by Southwest“, I met a very different type of robot. DAR-1, fabricated by an Austin-based big data company, is a little machine the size of two hands and shaped like an eight-legged spider. When I approached the table he was sitting on, something interesting happened. The small guy started flirting with me. His tiny red eye immediately caught my face and followed the movements of my head.

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I realized this robot was curious about me. He studied my eyes and my smile with the intensity of a child. He was shy, though. When I came a little too close to him, he got nervous and tried to back away. DAR-1 does not act like the „Terminator”, good or evil. Even though he just consists of a Raspberry Pi and open source software for facial recognition, once designed by Intel, I kind of liked him immediately.

He is very different from his gigantic brothers and sisters. For example, take a look at the company „Boston Dynamics“, which was recently bought by Google. Their cat-like robots „Cheetah“ and „WildCat“ might be the fastest legged robots on the world. They run quicker than 25 km/h. But would you want to have them around? They are strong, independent and always in a good mood. But can you imagine touching their metallic fur and their ice-cold skin? Rather not.

Until now engineers have tried so much to construct a better, faster and stronger robot. But all these features will not make it successful. It is even more important what we feel in its presence. Take the success of Apple as a role model. Steve Jobs always aimed to build technology that people like to touch and hold all the time; that makes them comfortable.

It might be a long way down the road until we finally go out for a drink with a robot buddy or take care of an electronic pet. However, since Apple and Google along with almost every auto company in the world work on autonomous vehicles, we are almost there. In a self-driving car we will communicate directly with a machine. Wouldn’t it be great if it recognizes us the moment we open the door?

We’re about to see the rise of the social robots. These guys will be very different from what we know from „The Terminator“. They will have more than one facial expression. They will talk to us and react on what we answer. And probably we will like them a lot. Nothing shows this better than tiny DAR-1, the shy and nerdy guy who flirted with me. 

Diese Kolumne gibt es auch auf Deutsch.

Britta Weddeling is Handelsblatt's correspondent in Silicon Valley covering the internet economy, latest trends and small curiosities in the valley of the nerds.

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