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The robots of CES 2018: Cuteness reigns supreme

But we also saw the foundation for substantial innovation.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

At first, I was annoyed with all of the buzz generated by Sony's Aibo. I dismissed Aibo as just a robot dog, and worse, a robot dog we've seen before -- Sony's original robot pet went on sale in 1999. But as cute dogs tend to do, Aibo eventually won me over. Sony's revamped dog packs a lot of cool tech into an undeniably adorable body.

Aibo uses more than 4,000 parts to act lifelike. It has a camera on its nose to identify family members and another near its tail to help it map your home. You can pet it on the head, back, and under its chin and it'll respond affectionately, and all those parts also allow it to move fluidly with the energy of a puppy.

Nevertheless, I was annoyed by Aibo because it's a toy first and foremost, and at CES 2018, we saw robots that can be so much more than that. Some of the robots are ready for consumers now, or will be in the near future. Others are still a long way off. Some were concepts that'll never be consumer products -- they're meant simply to test the boundaries of what's possible. Here are the highlights of the robots we saw, and what they can do.

Movement and mapping

Speaking of cute robots, last year at CES we were charmed by Kuri -- a roaming nanny that looks like a Pixar character. Kuri was here this year too -- it actually started shipping in limited quantities in late December. (It can actually map your home in its memory, so it knows where different rooms are. It can use that information to patrol on its wheels, and Kuri's able to move pretty fluidly. By learning the actual layout of your home, Kuri can be a much more effective security bot than a stationary smart home cam.

However, Kuri obviously can't go up and down stairs. A truly autonomous robot that could actually traverse your whole home would need legs. We saw two such robots at CES.

Now playing: Watch this: Robots of all shapes, sizes and abilities at CES

Sophia, meanwhile, is never going to be a consumer ready robot, but it's the closest bot I've ever seen to actually resembling a human. Sophia has skin made out of a material called "frubber." She's just under 6 feet tall, and she can walk. Sophia's pretty slow, as her new legs can only move her at 0.6 mile per hour right now.

Hanson Robotics, the company behind Sophia, hopes she'll eventually be useful in medical therapy and factories. Functioning robot legs could obviously have huge implications for an automated home assistant too.

Walker, from Ubtech, will actually be a consumer product and also has legs. Unveiled just days ago at CES, Walker can already dance and follow objects like a soccer ball. More importantly, it can traverse stairs. Ubtech's even planning to add arms to the bot by the time it launches, and it can respond to voice commands or touch on its torso. Walker isn't as quick as Kuri, but it can go places Kuri can't.

Now playing: Watch this: Ubtech bipedal robot tackles stairs, soccer at CES 2018

Entertaining and helping around the house

While a walking security bot could be an extremely useful addition to a smart home, I'd prefer one that can also help with the chores. Aeolus is that robot.

With hands capable of gripping objects, Aeolus can get you a can of beer from the fridge. Like Kuri, it has wheels and can map your home. The cameras above its LED eyes can also learn faces, objects, and can associate locations with objects. That's what would allow the bot to go to the fridge and get you a beer.


Aeolus can hand you objects and remember where they go. 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

That tech should also allow Aeolus to pick up your house. It can remember where objects go, so if it finds a toy out of place, it can pick it up and put it back. Because it can grip objects and navigate a floor, Aeolus can also mop and vacuum.

The big bot is still very much a prototype and it's not nearly as cute or consumer ready as Kuri. It's also huge and utilitarian, so it could intimidate your kids instead of charming them. It'll also be prohibitively expensive when it does launch. Still, Aeolus will theoretically be a consumer ready product, and I'm excited just by the concept of an all-encompassing helper robot.

Now playing: Watch this: Aeolus is everything you want in a smart home robot

While Aeolus is likely a long way off, Keecker is here now. First shown at CES in 2014, Keecker is one of the few robots we saw that you can actually buy right now. Keecker officially launched as a completed product this year, and we got to see it in action on the show floor. Keecker maps your home like Kuri and can help with home security thanks to a 360 degree camera on top of its domed head.

Beyond what Kuri can do, Keecker has a unique twist that should make it a welcome addition to any home looking for more entertainment options. Keecker has a built-in projector and works with Google's Android TV streaming platform. Keecker responds to voice commands, so you can simply say "Keecker, go to the living room and play Netflix on the ceiling." Keecker will remember where the living room is, then it'll point up and start playing.


Buddy's another friendly bot that can both dance and secure your home. 

Josh Miller/CNET

Keecker has built-in speakers and can dance too, so it could be an awesome option if you want a robot that can essentially bring a big screen TV with it to any room of your house.

Listening and getting to know you

An ideal smart home bot needs to know your face and your voice pretty well. As far as the latter, Google and Amazon are making headway with their respective digital assistants. Both Google Assistant and Amazon's Alexa can recognize your voice and customize commands accordingly. Both assistants can be fooled, but they're taking steps in the right direction.


The smart display knows when you're angry. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

At CES, we saw a robot that goes a step beyond what Amazon and Google offer as far as recognition. Titan AI recognizes your face, your voice and can even discern your mood. Titan combines a smart speaker with a touchscreen like the Amazon Echo Show, and it'll make music and movie recommendations based on how you're feeling. We couldn't test out this particular feature at CES, but the idea is cool.

The LG Hub Robot takes a different approach to helping you with artificial intelligence -- instead of getting to know you, LG's assistant named CLOi will know your appliances. The CLOi Hub Robot has big glowing eyes and will keep track of what's in your fridge to help you decide what to eat. Pick a recipe, and CLOi can start preheating your oven. (Alas, it suffered a demo fail on stage during LG's press conference.)

The concepts of more to come

LG's CLOi wasn't just integrated into the Hub Robot. CLOi is also LG's brand encompassing a whole new line of robots. LG showed off three robot concepts at CES. The Serving Robot brings you food and drinks. The Porter will handle your luggage. The Shopping Cart will scan and carry items for you in grocery stores.

Honda also showed off concept robots with promising ideas. All debuted under the name "3E Concept" at CES 2018, Honda's bots include a rugged vehicle designed to carry equipment around construction sites, a huggable robot with a face meant to provide emotional support, a serving robot that learns what you need and a robotic wheelchair meant to help the disabled navigate tricky terrain.

Both LG's and Honda's robots sound very useful, but none are slated for production yet. The skills could all be important in helping robots advance beyond being novelties. Ideally, we'll soon see robots that combine a lot of these skills. Single function robots such as robot vacuums are already pretty common.

A company called Misty Robotics is working on exponentially expanding what one robot can do. It has made a bot called "Misty I" specifically designed for programmers. This robotics company is taking the long view, and isn't planning on having a consumer ready product for 10 years -- an eternity in the tech industry. In the meantime, it hopes a community of programmers will work with the Misty bot to program functions and capabilities we haven't thought of yet.

Misty's long-term gamble could pay off if we don't see an all encompassing smart home robot come to fruition in the next 10 years, but I think we're getting close. The signs were all over CES 2018.

Of course, in order to make these products viable, designers will need to make them approachable, or even cute, so that people will want to invite these helpers into their homes. Aibo might be onto something important after all. At the very least, it deserves to be counted among the rest of the robots of CES 2018 that are taking meaningful steps toward the future.