How to Make “Ballie”-the-Robot A Successful Consumer Reality

During his keynote speech at CES 2020, Samsung consumer electronics division CEO H.S. Kim introduced “Ballie”, a ball-shaped robot that tracked him around the stage. Subsequently, Samsung released a cute video outlining their aspirations for Ballie — a “BB-8”-like robot to help with pets and house chores. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c7N5UDZX7TQ).
CES is all about excitement in consumer electronics, so it’s a good time to stop and ask: what’s are the hardest parts of making Ballie a success for consumers?

No doubt the expected technical answer here is: revving up the AI so that the robot can correctly identify when it is appropriate to project its view of the yoga-practicing woman onto the screen so she can perfect her pose. I’m not going to suggest that would be easy (though I might argue that “never” is the right answer, or at least, “not unless I ask you to”, but maybe that’s just because I’m constantly battling current technology’s efforts to try to get a step ahead of me).

Rather, one of the hardest parts about making that video a truly useful reality will be: interoperability. There’s no denying that it looks like a really cool robot, just as it is — making us think of our favourite scifi robot characters. But, to be actually useful, it would have to work (interoperate) with other manufacturers’ window covering controllers, robot vacuums, and video displays.

Aren’t you already tired of having to check potential IoT purchases to see if they’re compatible with your existing ecosystem? Are you trapped in your smartphone choice because you’ve got a couple of apps that only exist on your current platform, preventing you from making the leap to the other (iOS or Android)?

The challenges of interoperability are only partly technical; they are mostly motivational. Product technology developers don’t want it — it’s a lot easier to get stuff done if you control the entire ecosystem in which the product will work. (Who wants to wait a year and spend time debating whether or how to add a message in a standardized control message protocol?). Product marketers certainly don’t want interoperability — they want you to buy only from their company.

But, consumers like interoperability, whether they say the word or not. Interoperability means you don’t get locked into the brand you happened to select five years ago when you bought your first thing. It also means that small companies can get in the development game, potentially creating your dream home support tool that’s not going to make the cut for development at a large compny.

Another hard problem challenging Ballie’s consumer success is: privacy. While our favourite movie robots act as independent, sentient entities, we shouldn’t anthropomorphize any current robot offering. Given today’s state of the art technology, Ballie may have the on-board smarts to follow a human on stage, but to carry out many of the other actions implied in the promotional video, Ballie would probably have to communicate with a master computer somewhere. And by “somewhere”, I don’t mean the server rack in your coat closet, I mean computing resources at least nominally under Samsung’s control, not yours.

Many of us already overshare information about our household diurnal patterns (smart thermostats), and our sleep schedules (smart watches, health trackers). But, do we really need to invite spies into our lives to follow us around and video our every move, the way Ballie does?
Keeping personal data under your own control is technically challenging. Apart from a few parlour tricks, making the kind of AI-based inferences needed to appear sentient does require significant compute resources and access to lots of training data. And, again, companies have no motivation to try.

I’m not suggesting anything about Samsung’s, or any tech company’s, intentions in handling such personal data. Sadly, it’s too easy to find examples of failures in execution when it comes to stewardship of such personal data to date:

For the moment, companies are successfully pushing through the media backlash that follows such revelations, but it’s definitely building a bad debt in terms of consumer trust. It will limit their future options, when people simply won’t buy into a privacy exposure too far.

Kudos to Samsung for producing a cute robot that demonstrates some useful independence, and I certainly hope it will help drive the whole consumer electronics industry forward into developing new, interesting, and consumer-supportive products. I don’t think either of the major challenges I’ve outlined here are going to be addressed in the near term, but I hope you’ll join me in speaking out and asking all tech companies to consider them seriously for your future consuming comfort. It’s not about limiting business options — rather, it’s about making a bigger market for everyone’s enjoyment.

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