We’ve come a long way since the mechanical bots of Batteries Not Included, Short Circuit and other classic 80s science fiction.
Possibly to make them more palatable for a home audience, especially if they’re designed to live alongside your family, robot engineers are now making robots to look twee, endearing and even display human-like emotions – and we’ve rounded up 12 of the cutest.
Some are furry, some are tiny and all would be ideal companion.
Buddy the emotional robot
Billed as the world’s first emotional companion robot by its makers Blue Frog robotics, Buddy is part-pet, part-personal assistant, part-playmate for you and your little ones. A touchscreen display, capable of broadcasting video calls and playing games on, doubles up as Buddy’s face and its expression changes based on the robot’s “mood.” When you arrive home, Buddy’s face will light up; if you don’t give it enough attention, Buddy will become grumpy or sad; when its playing, Buddy will smile and laugh. Beyond its emotional features, Buddy can also act as a security camera, smart-home controller, and can be used to set timers or reminders.
Outside of the home, robots can also be used as companions for people going through therapy, as demonstrated by PARO, a robotic seal built to help reduce stress and boost the mood of people in hospitals and extended care facilities. Its design builds upon a body of scientific research that has shown animal therapy can be used as part of treatment plans for vulnerable people. Fitted with five sensors – tactile, light, audition, temperature, and posture sensors – PARO can respond to touch and a change of environment and will adjust its behaviour to suit. This includes “playing” with their patient, mimicking the noises of a harp seal and moving its body and head in a lifelike way to cheer a patient up. It has been so effective, in 2002 the Guinness World Record officially recognised PARO as the world's most therapeutic robot and it has proved particularly useful in the treatment of patients with dementia.
Somnox sleep robot
It may be lacking the facial features or expressions of the Buddy and Lovot machines, but Somnox’s Sleep Robot has been designed to be more cuddly. In a literal sense. As its name suggests, and thanks to its curved shape, you can spoon the Sleep Robot in bed and it will simulate breathing rhythms to help you regulate and slow down your own breathing to make it easier to relax and sleep. It can also play a variety of sounds, including a guided meditation or heartbeat and, if you wake in the night, motion detection sensors will switch the Sleep Robot’s features back on to help you drift back off.
While the Somnox Sleep Robot is aimed at adults, the Woobo is a furry robot being firmly marketed at children. Not too dissimilar to the design of a Furby, yet with more smarts, the Woobo features a touchscreen display in the centre of a rounded, fluffy body and below a pair of soft ears. Like Buddy, this screen showcases a range of Woobo’s facial expressions but can also run apps and games designed to teach your child how to read, write and solve maths problems. An onboard voice assistant can answer your child’s questions and you can even use Woobo to set reminders for your kids, from telling them when to brush their teeth to when to go to bed, or send them messages.
In a similar, furry vein, the Leonardo robot looks like a cross between a dog, fox and Mogwai from 1980s classic, Gremlins. Named after Leonardo Da Vinci, the social robot is 2.5ft tall and is covered in fake fur. It was the first robot created by the Personal Robots Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in partnership with animatronic experts at the Stan Winston Studios, NASA, Toyota and DARPA. Its purpose is to show how robots can work alongside humans and it uses its motors, sensors, and cameras to mimic human expressions, interact and track objects. It wasn’t built as a consumer product, instead being used and developed as part of Navy and astronaut training schemes.
Less soft and cuddly than others in this list, but no less cute, is Kiki. Built by ex-Google employees now trading as Zoetic AI, Kiki was “created for those who can't manage an animal pet, but want to care for and raise something just as delightful.” As a result, it looks like a pet dog – or cat, depending on how you see it – and it acts in a similar way to a real-life animal by learning from its owner and developing a personality depending on how its interacted with and cared for. For example, if you’re mean to it, Kiki might ignore you but if you show it love and affection, it will play and interact more with you. It can even “growl” at the vacuum. This means each Kiki is different and unique to their family.
Four years after Yukai launched its original Bocco, a humanoid robot used by families to send messages and remotely take care of loved ones, the Japanese firm revealed an “emo” version at CES 2019. Called Bocco Emo, the robot moves its head and says hello when it senses someone is nearby. It also lights up its eyes, shakes its antenna and makes cute sounds in response to emotional words – such as “happy” and “tired.”
From the same engineers behind the Bocco and Bocco Emo is Qoobo. It looks like a cat without a head or limbs and consists of cushion and tail covered in soft, fake fur. The robotic mechanics are housed inside the cushion and you can buy it with either in “husky grey” or “French brown”. When you sit and stroke the cushion, the tail swishes and wags in appreciation, which is said to help lower stress levels.
Yume Neko Smile
If you prefer your robot pets to actually look the animals they’re supposed to be, try the Yume Neko Smile. Made by Sega Toys, and translate from Japanese to Dream Cat Smile, the Yume Neko is covered in fake fur and is fitted with tactile sensors throughout the body that can determine how they’re being touched, and it will react appropriately. For example, patting it on the head and scratching it will make it purr and rub up against your hand. Pulling its tail or petting it too much will make it angry.
The only humanoid robot in this list is the super cute Robi. It measures just 34cm tall and walks, talks and dances, thanks to its 20 motorised joints. Robi can turn its head and pelvis 360 degrees, while microphones in its ears can detect where a person’s voice is coming from allowing it to turn its head in that direction. Its onboard voice assistant can speak and understand more than 250 words, phrases and commands and has an infrared remote emitter in its forehead meaning it can be used as a universal remote control. Because, why not? It is possible to buy Robi pre-assembled, or you can build it yourself, week-by-week, with a magazine.
Slightly shorter than Robi, but more advanced, is the PaPeRo Petit from NEC. Measuring just 24cm, it is crammed full of sensors that lets it recognise faces, spot people or pets using its heat sensor or ultrasonic sensor, hear voices while cutting through surrounding sounds and reply to questions and conversations. NEC claims these features mean the PaPeRo Petit is “almost on the level of talking with a family member or friend.”
Lovot - the love robot
Most robots are built with practical features in mind and their cute designs tend to come later. The Lovot robot is the opposite. A portmanteau of the words Love and Robot, Lovot has been built purely “to be loved by you.” As its makers explain, “we have used technology not to improve convenience or efficiency, but to enhance levels of comfort and feelings of love” and Lovot does this by reacting to its owner’s mood. If you’re feeling sad, Lovot will approach you for a hug, or it can sing a relaxing song when you’re stressed. Of course, despite its Japanese maker’s claims about it only being built as a companion, Lovot does also feature navigation technology, cameras and smart sensors meaning it can be used to keep an eye on your home. In one example, it’s shown doubling up as a baby monitor.