In industry and medicine, robots routinely build, break down and inspect things; they also assist in surgery and dispense prescription drugs in pharmacies. Neither they nor “social” robots—which are designed to engage with people and to elicit an emotional connection—behave like The Jetsons’ maid, Rosie, or other beloved droids of fiction. Even so, expect social robots to become more sophisticated and prevalent in the next few years. The field seems to have reached a tipping point, with bots having greater interactive capabilities and performing more useful tasks than ever before.

Like most robots, social robots use artificial intelligence to decide how to act on information received through cameras and other sensors. The ability to respond in ways that seem lifelike has been informed by research into such issues as how perceptions form, what constitutes social and emotional intelligence, and how people can deduce others’ thoughts and feelings. Advances in AI have enabled designers to translate such psychological and neuroscientific insights into algorithms that allow robots to recognize voices, faces and emotions; interpret speech and gestures; respond appropriately to complex verbal and nonverbal cues; make eye contact; speak conversationally; and adapt to people’s needs by learning from feedback, rewards and criticisms.

In consequence, social robots are filling an ever expanding variety of roles. A 47-inch humanoid called Pepper (from SoftBank Robotics), for instance, recognizes faces and basic human emotions and engages in conversations via a touch screen in its “chest.” About 15,000 Peppers worldwide perform such services as hotel check-ins, airport customer service, shopping assistance and fast-food checkout. Temi (from Temi USA) and Loomo (Segway Robotics) are the next generation of personal assistants—like Amazon Echo and Google Home but mobile, providing a new level of functionality. Loomo, for instance, is not only a companion but can also transform on command into a scooter for transport.

Social robots have particular appeal for assisting the world’s growing elderly population. The PARO Therapeutic Robot (developed by Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology), which looks like a cuddly seal, is meant to stimulate and reduce stress for those with Alzheimer’s disease and other patients in care facilities: it responds to its name by moving its head, and it cries for petting. Mabu (Catalia Health) engages patients, particularly the elderly, as a wellness aide, reminding them to take walks and medication and to call family members. Social robots are also gaining traction with consumers as toys. Early attempts to incorporate social behavior in toys, such as Hasbro’s Baby Alive and Sony’s AIBO robotic dog, had limited success. But both are resurging, and the most recent version of AIBO has sophisticated voice and gesture recognition, can be taught tricks and develops new behaviors based on previous interactions.  

Worldwide sales of consumer robots reached an estimated $5.6 billion in 2018, and the market is expected to grow to $19 billion by the end of 2025, with more than 65 million robots sold a year. This trend may seem surprising given that multiple well-funded consumer robot companies, such as Jibo and Anki, have failed. But a wave of robots is lining up to take the place of defunct robots, including BUDDY (Blue Frog Robotics), a big-eyed mobile device that plays games in addition to acting as a personal assistant and providing home automation and security.