Our new roommate is adorably vigilant, diminutively watchful, a very small defender.
The name is "Riley" and Riley is less than four inches tall. I've made sandwiches stacked taller than Riley, but Riley, who is a robot, is now tasked with guarding my home.
Riley is a $229 "Smart Home Patrol" device, a more anthropomorphized version of the thousands of "Internet of Things" products looking to ingratiate themselves within the places we live and work. It's a Wi-Fi home security camera that came out of an Indiegogo campaign from a Los Angeles company called iPatrol. But it's an HD camera that's mounted on a set of tank belts, allowing Riley to roam over carpets, magazines, LEGOs and whatever else might be lying on the cluttered floors of your place.
Not unlike toy and hobbyist drones, it can be controlled with an iOS or Android smart phone or tablet app where it can capture photos and videos. It does motion sensing, some limited (and frankly underwhelming) face tracking and can beat back the darkness with a useful night-vision feature. It can do all this, fully at your control, when you're away from home as long as it's there's a good Wi-Fi connection. You can hear whatever audio Riley hears through the app and use Riley as a remote microphone, relaying voice messages to a baffled housecat, for instance, when you're not at home.
Riley docks itself in impressively regimented fashion on a flat docking disc, where it can recharge after draining its battery for about an hour and a half at a time.
I'm not sure how to feel about Riley, but that's not Riley's fault.
I have a strange and complicated relationship with all robots and digital assistants, from Siri to Pixar's Wall-E, which Riley strongly resembles.
Robots, servo servants built to amuse and work for us, make me a little sad and overly accommodating. I will make excuses for their shortcomings (Riley, for instance, has trouble connecting to the Wi-Fi network sometimes and will never be able to climb stairs). It's because I want them to succeed, want them to fulfill their programming missions and avoid the inevitable scrap heap of history.
The robots are emotionless, of course. They could not be programmed to care less. But I can't help assigning unnecessary meaning to their oblivious plights. Do they dream? Do they like me? Is there a digital version of happiness and satisfaction they feel when a task is done, another item binary-checked off a list I'll never see?
It's stupid, of course, more a failing of my own ability to compartmentalize. But it's also human. My kids, on first sight, fell instantly in love with Riley. They love that Riley is small, that Riley is not threatening in any way, that Riley is easily controlled like a mini R/C tank. These kids have also come to accept Alexa, Amazon's voice-activated assistant living in our dining room Echo speaker, as a helpful, invisible family member. I wonder if excessive robot empathy is hereditary.
On a purely practical level, removing all emotional attachment for our new housemate, Riley is functional and friendly, but I have doubts.
Is this the thing I want protecting my homestead? Riley, who according to the manufacturer is unnecessarily male in gender (the device's flat affect, which announces that it's ready for action, bears that out), could easily be crushed underfoot in the middle of the night. Riley can't yet be programmed to patrol on its own; that may come later in a software update. And the face tracking feature is terrible; Riley's not going to see your face and follow you around like a robot puppy, if that's what you're expecting. And this robot isn't tough-looking at all. Most home-security devices are sleek and black; they are meant to evoke spy movie gadgets and covert operations. Riley looks like it wants an itty-bitty hug, but not too tight, the neck might snap. It's like buying the runt of a chihuahua litter as a guard dog.
Maybe that's why Riley seems so underdoggy; the way he falls over easily, but has a button in the app that shakes him around until he's back on his tracks. (The app, by the way, could use a lot clearer instructions within it, rather than making users hunt in the small user's manual or online for instructions.)
Riley determinedly and methodically auto-docks back into its charger as if studying advanced calculus and it makes me want to cheer every time the robot succeeds.
But Riley is pricey, especially for larger spaces; to patrol my whole house, I'd need an additional $229 robot for upstairs. And unmounted, the battery life seems too short; it's easy to imagine being on vacation, forgetting Riley is operational, and not having enough juice to get the robot back to its charging station, rendering Riley comatose for days.
As a test case for what's ahead, that ongoing promise of automated software and hardware assisting in our lives all day, Riley is an unnecessary, but not uninteresting $229 (currently out of stock on the web site) proof of concept. Riley really, really wants to please and keep you safer. It's up to you to decide if that's laughably implausible, or earnestly cute enough to make an investment and bring Riley home.