Talking Robots: The Branding Challenge


On my way to LAX last week, I noticed a billboard for Neill Blomkapt’s new film, “Chappie.” The film, set for release in the US on March 6, is about a robot that’s programmed to save humanity.

It got me thinking about a childhood road trip from the Bay Area to Vancouver—an eternal ride for any kid. In the backseat boredom, I got it in my head that I had to have a “robot with buttons,” and started a whiny campaign to get one. I don’t know where the thought came from, but I still remember the obsession, and I’m sure my parents do, too.

Obviously robots have progressed way beyond the toys of childhood—metallic bodies, buttons and blinking lights. They’re even starting to resemble and act like Hollywood’s trusty sidekicks: think R2D2. But they’re also creating uncomfortable questions about a future so chillingly portrayed in such films as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Terminator” and “Blade Runner.”[more]

Today’s robots take a variety of forms, and are popping up as friendly assistants in all areas of our lives. They make our food, and sometimes serve it. iRobot’s fastidious Roomba and remote-controlled gutter cleaning Looj help out around the house, while other robots fill jobs on industrial assembly lines.

They’re a natural at enhancing customer service and the customer experience. Starwood is testing a robotic helper for its hotel guests, while Lowe’s R&D lab is developing OSHbot, an in-store meeter-and-greeter for its home hardware stores.

Others are being trained to take on more serious roles, protecting us against disaster, fighting our wars and joining us in the exploration of the universe. Surgical robots even operate on us when we’re sick or injured. SoftBank’s Pepper is heading to the US with claims that it can read emotions.

As impressive as they’ve become, robots are still far from the promise of true artificial intelligence (AI), which is one reason why SoftBank is partnering with IBM’s Watson. Some of the world’s most capable minds are set on achieving this goal, and there’s no shortage of financing to help them achieve it.

Venture capitalists are investing in robotics businesses, and The Guardian tells us Google “has bought almost every machine-learning and robotics company it can find.”

And no post about AI would be complete without mention of futurist and Google employee Ray Kurzweil, whose predictions have computers passing the Turing test by 2029. That means less than 15 years before machines start exhibiting intelligent behavior equivalent to or indistinguishable from that of your grandma Rose!

So why does this matter, and what does it have to do with brand?

Though we’re not at the point where we have to relate to a truly intelligent, humanoid machine, companies have been exploring what it means to interact with robots for some time now.

Seemingly simple questions start to pop up, like how should they be named? What should they look like? If people speak to them, how should the robot respond? With affirmative beeps or chimes? Or practical language mixed with a dash of humor?

If a user needs to use a verbal command to “wake up” the robot, what should the activation language be? Should it be polite? Commanding? Personable? Friendly? These are brand questions that point to different types of experiences.

Ultimately, we need to determine what kind of relationship we want to have with the robots in our lives? Jibo is billed as “the world’s first family robot,” and represents one possible direction. Named like a tech version of the family dog, Jibo is not meant to be just another object in the home. “He” is meant to be a companion, which says a lot about how the creators hope he’ll be treated, and how we’ll experience him as part of home life.

Jibo, like all other robots, is relatively simple compared to what we should expect in 2029, and this personality, name and experience are appropriate for the technology. But with robot superinteligence on its way, should the branding and user experience be different—assuming these are still appropriate concerns for truly intelligent machines?

As noted in Popular Science, “the most urgent task for the AI community is addressing the branding challenge, not the technological one.” And historically, the robot brand has been dictated by Hollywood.

Dileep George, co-founder of AI firm Vicarious recognizes that “as researchers, we have an obligation to educate the public about the difference between Hollywood and reality.” Let’s see what kind of effect Blomkapt’s “Chappie” has on how we think about the robots that will populate our world, and how we’ll want to connect with them.

Oh, and I never did get that “robot with buttons.”

—Ilan Beesen is a New York-based creative strategist focused on the evolving relationship between brands and consumers.