My robot butler dreams are getting closer to reality

Ubtech's Walker humanoid robot took good care of me at CES.

The last time I fully interacted with a robot was when ASUS launched the Zenbo back in 2016. As cute as it was, the fact that it lacked arms meant it couldn't exactly help out with everyday tasks. Ironically, two years later Honda discontinued its iconic humanoid robot, Asimo, which painted a grim future for home robots. But not all is lost. Chinese robot maker Ubtech has been developing its own machine with all four limbs, which ended up being the Walker.

Here at CES, I got to spend some quality time with this charming robot, and despite the controlled nature of the demo, I got a taste of what life might be like in the near-future.

Upon my arrival just outside the fake living room, the almost 5-foot-tall Walker opened the sliding door to greet me with a smiley face, and I was instructed to pass my bag to it so that it could hang it up for me. I sat down on the couch, and things became immediately awkward: The robot offered to do a dance for me. Luckily, it was just the dab followed by a couple more cringy moves. I happily danced along to keep it company.

Perhaps as a reward for saving it from social shame, Walker then proceeded to the mini fridge and grabbed a can of Coke, followed by a can of Pringles on a nearby table. It then brought both items to me, placing the drink next to me and passing the Pringles to me with its other arm. It was a simple gesture, but the fact that a robot was able to walk to the fridge, open the door, grab something out of it and walk back to me with the snacks blew my mind.

Walker then reminded me that it was time to head out for a date with a certain "Mary" (I clarified that I'm married), and since it was apparently raining, the robot then walked over to pick up an umbrella and passed it to me. Again, that put a smile on my face.

While it was a fun demo, there were some caveats. For one, it was clearly a controlled environment, as the robot still relied on labels on the floor to better locate key objects, such as the sofa, umbrella stand, mini fridge and door. A company rep said this was merely to increase the positioning precision, and stressed that the robot is capable of navigating itself around using the company's own Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) algorithm.

Similarly, for the sake of safety, the robot moved around slowly so I had to be patient. The demo today also skipped a few features, with the most notable ones being face recognition and voice recognition. In other words, I didn't have much real interaction with Walker apart from touching its hands when passing objects, which was a shame given how it could apparently do so much more.

Still, outside of the demo, I was able to test the robot further. For Walker's stabilization, I gently pushed it while it was walking, and it was able to recover quickly after one step. Understandably, when I nudged again right after that one recovery step, Walker almost fell over. I'm not sure if this robot will ever reach Boston Dynamics' level when it comes to taking such abuse, but then again, it probably doesn't need to in home environments.

Ubtech's Cruzer service robot

Given its snail pace and missing features, there's still some ways to go before Walker can become a fully qualified home robot. In fact, Ubtech doesn't even have a price nor date for this machine just yet. Still, the company seems serious about bringing Walker to consumers, with a rep telling us that this should happen "in the very near future" which could either mean within this year if not next. Regardless, I'm looking forward to having my very own robot butler at home some day.

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