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Samsung's CES 2019 robots just want to give you a helping hand

Maybe succumbing to our mechanical overlords isn't such a bad thing.

James Martin/CNET

The glossy white machine looks like a trash can and comes up nearly to my knees. I lean down to get a closer look. Suddenly, the top rises to reveal a filter, as white, oval eyes blink at me from a black screen on the side.

This is no trash can. It's Samsung's Bot Air, one of the four robots the company unveiled this week at CES 2019. It's meant to purify the air in your home.

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CNET's Shara Tibken checks out Samsung's Bot Air robot. 

James Martin/CNET

If you had one in your house, it would automatically go to different rooms to clean the air -- like your kitchen for instance, when you've burned something in your oven. A light around the bottom of the machine flashes red when the air is dirty and changes to green once everything is clear.

It's just one of the ways Samsung is trying to expand artificial intelligence into all its products. The company, which makes everything from TVs to memory chips, has been pushing its Bixby digital assistant in its phones, televisions and home appliances. Now it's attempting its first foray into robots for consumers with its Bot Air for air purification, Bot Care for health monitoring, Bot Retail for restaurants and shops, and GEMS (Gait Enhancing and Motivating System) to help with mobility issues.

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At the moment, though, these are just research. There's no timeline for when Samsung could actually launch the robots. And the company would be joining an increasingly crowded field. Rivals like LG and Sony have demoed various robots during their CES presentations, as have numerous startups.

But that doesn't mean I don't want to see Samsung's robots for myself. For that, I venture to Samsung's massive booth at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Helping you walk

While the Samsung Bot Air looks like a cutesy version of Wall-E, the Samsung GEMS looks more like an exoskeleton.

The machine is meant to help with mobility issues, such as those caused by injuries from strokes, and Samsung has developed three models: the GEMS-H for hips, GEMS-A for ankles and GEMS-K for knees.

With the GEMS-H, the first step in the process is measuring the hip angles and posture of the person wearing the machine, based on inertial measurement unit sensors, says Youngbo Shim, a researcher at the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology in Suwon, South Korea. The robot then recognizes the gait phase (like the moment your foot touches the ground) and generates assistive torques at the hip joints.

Basically, the robot gives you a bionic pep in your step.

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The Samsung GEMS-H for hips helps you walk better. 

James Martin/CNET

There's also a setting to provide resistance to give you more of a workout.

Because I'm wearing a dress, I'm not able to actually try the GEMS-H robot. (Note to self: Never wear a dress to CES.) But CNET photographer James Martin gives it a whirl.

The GEMS-H model, which is the furthest along in development, features a black strap that goes around the hips. That's connected to more straps that encircle each thigh, while a white electronics module sits in the small of the back and on the outside of each thigh.

The GEMS-H can boost your walking speed by 20 percent, improve your balance by 19 percent and reduce your energy expenditure by 23 percent, Samsung said.

Martin notes that though the robot may look restrictive -- the GEMS-H weighs about 4.6 pounds -- it doesn't actually feel that way. He says he can really feel the difference when climbing steps.

"It felt like I was initiating and walking myself, but toward the end of the step, I felt a bit of a pull," Martin says. "It was subtle, but I could feel it helping me."

With the workout setting, Martin "definitely felt the tension pressing against" him. But he notes "it was very uniform, not like a push against my motion but more of a constant, subtle resistance."

Samsung has been developing the technology for about six years, but it's still not ready for prime time, Shim said. The GEMS-H for hips has already gone through clinical tests, but Samsung doesn't yet have a business case for launching it.

The hope, Shim said, is for the GEMS-H machine to go through the Food and Drug Administration approval process to be used in medical cases, like people recovering after a stroke. The GEMS-A, meanwhile, will soon be starting clinical tests. It helps users by lifting the foot and pushing the body forward.

Development is still early for the GEMS-K, which can mitigate knee pain. The model shown at CES is the machine's first iteration.

But the GEMS-H has the highest number of possible uses, Shim said, which is why Samsung worked on it first. It's initially aimed at people who have muscle weakness or other mobility issues, but it also can be worn by people doing athletic training.

"It's designed for people who have problems with their joints, but also for the elderly, people who have weakness in their lower limbs and people who need rehabilitation," Shim said.

Right now the robots designed for universal use, but the hope is to eventually use artificial intelligence to help tailor them to each individual wearer, Shim said.

Monitoring health

Next up is the Bot Care, which Samsung brought on stage Monday during its CES press conference. The gadget is designed to be a full-service health monitoring robot.

Sensors can detect your breathing as you sleep to tell you how well you rested. If you put a finger on the sensor, it can calculate vitals like your heart rate. The machine can remind you to take your medicine or even detect falls, one of the major causes of death for seniors.

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The Samsung Bot Care monitors your health.

James Martin/CNET

The face, or screen, of the robot can display videos of things like stretching poses, and the machine can play background music to help you unwind after a long day or get revved up for a workout.

Health care workers can remotely monitor settings and see your vitals, as can your family members. And the data syncs with the Samsung Health app, which you can view on your Galaxy devices.

Robot waiters and clerks

The tall robot, called the Bot Retail, rolls out from behind a door, heading to a Samsung booth worker.

As it gets closer, I see a large screen on the front that's displaying a menu of desserts. The Samsung employee selects a $12 Crunch Pie ("a crispy pie topped with sweet berries") and pays for the food by bringing a smartphone near the device.

Bot Retail then turns around to reveal removable shelves on its back, letting the Samsung employee grab food from one of them.

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The Samsung Bot Retail removes the need to actually interact with a human waiter or clerk.

James Martin/CNET

Of all Samsung's robots, the Bot Retail most resembles a person. It comes up to midchest and has a square-shaped "head" with rounded corners that moves independent of the robot's body.

The device is aimed at restaurants, retail stores and similar locales. The goal is for Bot Retail to serve as your waiter or store clerk, removing the need for you to ever interact with an actual person.

In the case of retail stores, Bot Retail can help you find items, look for recommendations and compare alternatives, all from its big screen. For instance, it can show you accessories for your new Samsung watch or direct you to different parts of a store.

And the robot can respond to you using voice prompts and by changing facial expressions.

If these robots are our future overlords, life may not be so bad. 

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