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Zenbo, a new home robot with 'feelings,' for the price of a smartphone (+video)

At the Computex trade show in Taipei, Taiwan, the electronics manufacturer Asus debuted Zenbo, their $599 home robot that moves independently, understands spoken commands.

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    A Zenbo robot from Asus performs for visitors during the Computex Taipei exhibition at the world trade center in Taipei, Taiwan.
    Chiang Ying-ying/AP
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Amid an ever-expanding digital butler industry, which recently saw the debut of Google Home, an artificial intelligence device that comes in the shape of a small, white speaker and allows users to perform household tasks such as controlling overhead lights, the Taiwanese electronics company Asus launched Zenbo Monday in Taipei.

Tech companies have been quick to join in the development of AI devices for the home. Google Assistant, the functional AI interface included with Google Home, followed similar products from Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook. Apple, whose Siri debuted on their iOS 5, was one of the initial frontrunners in the world of AI, with Microsoft launching its competing Cortana software soon thereafter. Meanwhile, Amazon launched Echo with the Alexa interface in June 2015 and Facebook’s M launched in August 2015.

The difference, however, between each of those and Asus’ recent development, is that while the others are all stationary box-like devices, Zenbo can roll around the room independently and express emotion through its large digital eyes.

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Only electronics developer SoftBank, has an independently moving robot in any way similar to what Asus is offering. However, SoftBank’s Pepper costs nearly $1,800 and is primarily intended for commercial use, such as taking customer orders at Pizza Hut.

Zenbo, which costs $599 and resembles a Dyson vacuum-cleaner ball, rolls around on two large wheels. It has a touchscreen display atop an oblong head that extends out above the base, which not only shows animated emotions it also plays movies, reads recipes aloud, makes video calls, and recognizes family members. 

That's taking things a step further than offerings from other voice-command house robots. For instance, Google, at the recent launch of Assistant, demonstrated its capabilities through a sample morning in which a father told Google to turn on lights and play music inside the children’s rooms, a mother asked if a package had shipped and a child asked for help with Spanish homework.

In contrast, Zenbo was shown responding to requests to play music and communicated with Taiwan’s new president, Tsai Ing-wen, who was in attendance at the Computex trade show. Zenbo has also been programmed with protocols to entertain children, as well as comprehensive home care systems to help elderly or disabled users. It has the ability to remind users of medication schedules and doctors appointments and is prepared to monitor a home for emergencies such as falls. If there is a problem, Zenbo will notify carers and they will be able to use the camera and remotely steer the robot to identify the situation.

For children, the robot can tell stories, play games, as well as sing and dance and control the surrounding environment. For adults, Zenbo will compete with Amazon and Google devices by controlling household functions such as lights and thermostats – though many of those functions will require further development.

“For decades, humans have dreamed of owning such a companion: one that is smart, dear to our hearts, and always at our disposal. Our ambition is to enable robotic computing for every household,” said Asus chairman, Jonney Shih.

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