Robots have jumped, raced and rolled a long way in the last 10 years

They've thrived this decade, even if our dream robot butler remains elusive for now.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
7 min read

Pepper has become the de facto robot of the decade.

Aloysius Low/CNET

It's 2019 and we still don't have adorable robot butlers in our homes to deliver ice cream while we lounge on the sofa or tidy up our floor-drobe after an especially busy week. Are you disappointed? I know I am.


And yet, as the decade draws to a close, we're also living in the most exciting era for robotics we've ever seen. Not only are the robots we're building more advanced than ever, but also we're having discussions about the roles robots should play in our lives, whether they should have rights and what our relationship with them should look like.

The 2010s have given us robots that can care for us, robots that can wow us and robots that give us the willies. Don your exoskeleton: It's time to take a walk through 10 years of robo-history.

Scary robots 

There's no other robotics company in the world that's caught the public's attention this decade quite like Boston Dynamics. The Softbank-owned company is known for posting videos of its sophisticated and terrifying machines that spark reactions that range from, "Greetings, new robot overlords" to "Burn it with fire!"

Meet Boston Dynamics' weird and wonderful robot family

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Boston Dynamics was spun out from MIT back in 1992 and is perhaps most famous for its DARPA-funded robot BigDog -- a load-carrying quadruped for soldiers. But its most notable achievement this decade is the Cheetah, a four-footed robot that broke the land-speed record for legged robots when it was introduced in 2012 by galloping at 28 mph. MIT developed a similar robot, also called the Cheetah, which, when it came along in 2014, had been trained to jump over obstacles while running, and by 2018 could climb stairs (there really is no escape).

If we're destined to cede dominance to any Boston Dynamics robot, though, it will likely be Atlas , the 6-foot-tall humanoid bot introduced in 2016. Physically superior to us puny humans in almost every way, Atlas can do parkour and gymnastics and run up 2-foot steps. Definitely one to be wary of.

Watch this: Boston Dynamics Spot robot is ready to leave the nest

Flying robots

There was a time not long ago when the word "drone" still conjured visions of military vehicles, shooting missiles out of their undercarriages. But over the course of the past five years, drones have become a well-loved and common consumer product. You might even own one yourself.

These flying bots are largely used for aerial filming, taking photographs or just aerial fun, but Google, Amazon and UPS all are testing delivery drones that will fly your purchases directly to your home (like aerial versions of ground-based delivery robots built by Starship Technologies). Drones are even delivering vital drugs to remote areas in the Amazon.

The most advanced drones are learning to fly themselves thanks to advances in machine learning and AI that allow them to comprehend their environment. It's thought that they could even be superior to human pilots by the year 2023.

Surgical robots

Surgical robots, which assist in thousands of procedures in the US each year, aren't unique to this decade -- the most widely used surgical system da Vinci has been around since the turn of the millennium -- but some key developments have occurred in the past 10 years.

Perhaps the most exciting of all isn't actually in the field of robotics, but instead involves network technology. At the beginning of this year, a surgeon in China performed the first remote operation using 5G.

Watch this: 5G lets you remotely perform surgery with a robot arm

Remote robotic surgery allows doctors to operate on patients from a totally different place using telepresence surgical robots, but a major obstacle in its implementation is lag -- the delay between the order being given and the robot carrying it out. The delicacy required to perform surgery makes any lag dangerous. The introduction of 5G promises to make lag a thing of the past, letting surgeons operate in real time while receiving the haptic feedback they need to know exactly what they're doing.

Other seriously impressive developments in this field include the Ion, which can conduct minimally invasive lung biopsies, and the Monarch system, which allows surgeons to control a flexible robotic endoscope through the branches of the lung using a game controller. Both received FDA clearance in 2019 and 2018 respectively.

Sex robots

You may or may not be able to muster feelings for a sex robot, but you probably have opinions about them. This decade has been rife with discourse about whether sex robots are creepy and wrong. Proponents say that they could reduce child abuse and improve the sex trade by reducing reliance on human sex workers. Detractors argue that they'll increase the objectification of women and result in increasingly confused attitudes toward sex and relationships.

What has sparked the debate is the simple fact that sex robots are become increasingly more sophisticated. Take Jackie, one of Abyss Creations' RealDolls, who comes equipped with a personality that you've custom-designed with preferences, traits and qualities (such a shyness or inquisitiveness) to suit you. The idea isn't just to have sex with Jackie, but to talk to her, get to know her, fall in love with her.

To many, this is a dystopian vision of a relationship, but for RealDolls customers, it's already starting to become a reality.

Watch this: My conversation with Harmony the sexbot

Celebrity robots

The first time I met Pepper the robot was in a Softbank mobile store in 2016, where it was advising people about their phone plans. Since then, Peppers seem to be wherever I go, from the airport to the lobby of a hotel to a branch of my local bank. It's so common that it's almost the de facto face of robots around the world.

Pepper is a semi-humanoid robot that Softbank developed in 2014. With a tabletlike screen attached to its chest, it can roll around and gesticulate, but the real magic of Pepper comes from within.

Cameras in its eyes and microphones in its ears help it to detect the emotions and tone of voice of people by identifying changes in their facial expressions or voice register. The point is to improve its ability to interact with humans by giving it more data to interpret exactly what people are saying. Though primarily designed to be a helpful customer service team member, it can be programmed to do a whole range of things -- playing Cards Against Humanity, for example.

The only robot that boasts similar celebrity status might be Sophia. Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics famously creates incredibly lifelike humanoid robots that can run through the full gamut of human facial expressions. Sophia made her debut at SXSW in 2016, learned to walk in 2018 and has rejected the romantic advances of actor Will Smith

I haven't been to a single tech show or conference for the last couple of years where Sophia hasn't put in an appearance. Cameras in Sophia's eyes allow her to make eye contact and recognize people. She can also process speech and have conversations using natural language processing technology. She is possibly the closest thing to a convincing interactive animatronic human we have.

If you're fascinated by the creepy Uncanny Valley effect that super realistic robots such as Sophia embody, then you might also be interested in these Japanese newscaster robots from 2014 and this horrifying robot baby from 2013.

Home robots

Those of you ready to welcome a robot into your home might want to avoid creepy babies and instead opt for something like Lovot. Unveiled earlier this year at CES , Lovot is like a seal crossed with a penguin, and it responds when you snuggle it. Designed and built by the same man who created Pepper, Lovot is intended to reduce loneliness and perform the simple task of keeping you company.

Watch this: Can Sony's robot pup Aibo make friends with real dogs?

Or you might prefer a dog as a companion, in which case Sony's Aibo would be a good choice. After discontinuing Aibo back in 2006, Sony revived its cute robo-dog in 2017. It's a highly sophisticated piece of kit costing nearly $3,000, but don't expect it to use those smarts to play music via Alexa or help you get out of bed in the morning. Nope, Aibo is designed purely to be your pet, nothing more, nothing less. The good news is, it does a grand job of it.

Adorable home robots can do more than just keep you company though. Take MiRo -- a sort of rabbit-dog-cow hybrid bot born in 2017 that's designed to be part of a safe smart home system for elderly or at-risk people.

MiRo works in conjunction with a wristband that measures vital signs and has a fall sensor, an "intellitable" -- a sort of self-driving countertop that can rise up and down -- and ceiling-mounted sensors that measure a range of environmental factors.

The robots that invaded our smart homes in 2017

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Together these items make up a system that constantly monitors a person in their home. If the wristband and ceiling-based sensor detect a potential fall, MiRo can investigate and find out if the person has fallen and is unconscious and send out an alert if necessary.

A whole range of care robots in development have the goal of monitoring people while allowing them to remain in their homes independently for longer. Increasingly there are also robots designed to help people perform everyday tasks including cooking and folding laundry, although they're not quite making it into people's homes just yet.

Robots that made us ask questions about ourselves

Back in August 2015, a robot called Hitchbot hitchhiked its way across Germany and the Netherlands, and across Canada as well. Hitchbot was designed as a social experiment and relied on the kindness of strangers to get from place to place and became something of a celebrity. But then tragedy struck.

As Hitchbot was just beginning a new journey traveling across the US, it was vandalized in Philadelphia and couldn't be repaired. Hitchbot's demise sparked an outpouring of anger and grief that showed us we are able to become attached to robots and develop fond feelings for them, as if they are truly alive.

As robots become increasingly commonplace in our lives, our attitudes toward them and the ways we relate to and treat them are likely to become even more important. In the next decade, robots will surely become smarter, stronger and more capable than ever, but it could well be the decisions we make about the place they occupy in our world and how we coexist alongside them that really comes to define the next era in robotics development.

Sony's new Aibo is the robot dog companion we've been waiting for

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