“What’s your name?” the animatronic man in the garden center asked.
I froze. I knew it was a robot. Or at least I was pretty sure it was a robot. But when it began talking to me, I started to doubt myself. If it was just a machine, how did it know I was there?
Now I wished I hadn’t wandered off from my parents. I stood in silence, half-scared it might be a real person and half-scared of being a kid dumb enough to talk back to a robot.
The robot continued talking as if I had responded. I let out a breath, able to breathe again once I realized it was an audio recording on a loop.
No matter what television channel I flipped to as a child, it seemed like robots were everywhere. I grew up watching Rosey the Robot keep house on The Jetsons, robots in disguise transform before my eyes on Transformers, “Vicki” ー an acronym for a Voice Input Child Identificant robot ー learn how to act human from the family that adopted her on Small Wonder, and Johhny 5 get free will in Short Circuit. But it wasn’t every day I saw a robot in real life.
Fast forward a few decades, and it seems like robots are everywhere in New York City. Here are just a few of the robots you can find in New York today.
1. ElliQ Befriends the Elderly
The New York State Office for the Aging is deploying 800 robots to act as companions to the elderly, it was announced in May of last year.
Built by Intuition Robotics, an Israeli company, ElliQ is like a more assertive version of the digital assistants Alexa or Siri. The robot proactively offers medication reminders, physical activity exercise, and more. Thanks to artificial intelligence, ElliQ adapts its behavior to its user, for example making more jokes if they laugh.
Research indicates that long-term loneliness can be as harmful to one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Social isolation leads to $6.7 billion in added related Medicate spending each year. The robot ElliQ is being called a “sidekick for happier aging,” and it’s said to have “unprecedented engagement levels” with the older population.
2. Boston Dynamics’ Spot Helps Keep Firefighters Safe
Move over, Dalmatians! There’s a new “dog” in town. The New York City Fire Department (FDNY) acquired two new robotic dogs last spring.
Robots aren’t new to fire departments. However, standard tracked and wheeled robots are not able to navigate uneven surfaces. These robot dogs, named Spot, are employed to help with search-and-rescue missions in dangerous conditions.
Operated by human handlers, the robo-dogs can gather images and data, including measuring gas and chemical concentrations. Boston Dynamics created the $75,000 robot dogs for the FDNY.
Spot comes on the heels of the New York Police Department canceling its contract, also with Boston Dynamics, for a robot K-9 named Digidog after New Yorkers compared to a “dystopian surveillance drone.” This marks the first time a U.S. fire department has hired a Boston Dynamics dog.
3. Yayoi Kusama Robot Paints the Louis Vuitton Store
Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama has been taking the art world by storm for years with her whimsical polka-dot art and infinity room installations, transcending into everyday New York culture with exhibitions such as at the New York Botanical Garden in 2021 and a floor-to-ceiling mosaic in Grand Central Madison Terminal that’s set to open later this year.
Currently making waves, though, is Kusama’s collaboration with Louis Vuitton. The luxury handbag brand transformed its Midtown store with infinity dots ー and a lifelike robot of the artist. Robot Kusama appears to paint colorful dots on the display windows. The lifelike robot even blinks her eyes.
4. Alina Is New York City’s Premier Hotel Robot Butler
If you’re the type of traveler who delights in ordering mounds of ice cream through room service but for whatever reason wants to avoid hotel staff ー let’s just say it’s because you’re a child who was left home alone and is using your parents’ credit card ー head to Luma Hotel Times Square. There you’ll find Manhattan’s first hotel robot butler, Alina.
Alina is an autonomous mobile robot (AMR) from Relay Robotics. When a guest has a request, Luma staff load her up with the required items and insert the proper room number. The three-foot-tall robot is equipped with sensors and 3D cameras that allow for safely navigating from her docking station to guest rooms. She began working at the hotel in 2017.
See Alina, named after the Greek word for “light,” in action here.
5. Bellabots Are Roaming Restaurants Across the Boroughs
Bellabot is a cat-faced three-tiered server tray on wheels that lights up and sings. Equipped with visual SLAM and laser SLAM technology, the robot waitress can be programmed with the layout of the restaurant. Kitchen staff can load her up with food and send her off to deliver it to tables.
Bellabot is developed by Shenzhen-based Pudo Robotics, which WowRobee distributes in the United States. There are about 20 Bellabot robots roaming New York City.
The robots cost around $12,000 to $16,000 each. Richard Yao purchased one for the restaurant New Mulan, in Flushing, Queens, and reports the efficiency makes it worth the investment.
When Leo Tan had a difficult time hiring waitstaff amid COVID-19, he purchased one for the dim sum restaurant Dimmer and Summer in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He said Bella “makes people laugh.”
Mikayel Aslanyan, the owner of Lilya’s Restaurant and Grill/Cafe Gourmand, an Armenian restaurant on Staten Island, introduced Bella because he liked the whimsy of it. He calls it “nice entertainment.”
See Bella sing here.
6. Pepper and ZNO Help You Check in for Your Orthodontics Appointment
When you arrive for your appointment at Lemchen Salzer Orthodontics, you’ll be greeted by Pepper. The four-foot-tall robot has big eyes and a happy smile, which may be what you need when you’re about to get your braces tightened.
Once you’re ready to check in, Pepper will request that you enter your birthday into a tablet and can help answer any questions you may have about your visit. If you have a bit of a wait before the orthodontist is available, the friendly robot can even tell you stories and dance.
When it’s your turn to see the orthodontist, another robot will greet you. ZNO (there are two of them) looks like a computer screen on a pedestal with wheels and will lead you to the room where you’ll be examined and display any pertinent information you should know. ZNO can also carry any necessary medical instruments needed for your procedure.
ZNO costs about $8,000 and was a solution when Pepper was too expensive. ZNO came about when Dr. Marc Lemchen collaborated with Thinking Robots to develop unique software for an Israeli-made robot named Temi. Founding his own company, Zeeno Robotics, Lemchen is making robotics more accessible to medical and dental environments.