A sizable portion of this year’s CES show floor was dedicated to robots, those potent symbols of automated domesticity, digital companionship, and, of course, mechanized terror. Some were small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, others large enough to battle a human army if the Uprising ever happens. After spending hours watching these machines swim, dance, fly, and do butler stuff, I felt confident that an I, Robot–style world of humans living alongside androids is still a long way off. Advances in artificial-intelligence techniques such as machine learning are making robots better at discrete tasks, like playing Scrabble, but aren’t inevitably pushing them toward developing the spark of human intellect. The bots on the show floor mostly functioned as appliances, tools, or toys. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun to survey the options to find the machines that were the most unsettling or intimidating. Here are my awards for the robots that made the biggest impression.
Scariest (Theoretical) Killing Machine: PowerEgg
Remember in Toy Story when Woody meets the creepy toys in Sid’s room, and the adorable doll turns out to be a monstrous spider-baby? That’s how I felt when this cute, egg-shaped drone suddenly sprouted legs:
The PowerEgg, built by the Chinese drone maker PowerVision, can travel up to 28 miles per hour, easily outrunning the fastest human. It has a flight time of 23 minutes, enough to hunt a target within a 10-mile radius. For now PowerEgg is meant to be used for recording video, sporting a 360-degree 4K camera that can transmit images in real time. But if you’d heard the ominous hummmmm of the PowerEgg as its monstrous claws emerged from its pristine shell, you too would fear one day seeing these oblong nightmares fully weaponized and darkening the skies. Kill it with fire.
Most Likely to Betray You in the Uprising: iPal
The robot most likely to betray you in the Uprising isn’t scary, exactly, because it must manage to earn your trust through years of docility. But there’s still something about it that’s off-putting enough to fit neatly into a dystopian hellscape. I’m speaking, of course, about these humanoid bots made for children that sing “Old McDonald” in unison:
The iPal uses facial, gesture, and emotion recognition in order to converse with the humans around it. It responds to touch and has jointed arms that can hold a book or push (tip over?) a wheelchair, according to marketing materials. The iPal is specifically targeted at some of society’s most vulnerable groups; it can be used as a children’s education tool to teach language, math, or computer programming, or dispatched in elder-care facilities to help health aides. Most alarmingly, the iPal doesn’t have a nose or mouth, making it chillingly alien even as it assumes our form. Seriously, watch out for this dude and his nursery rhymes.
Best Name: Seadragon
What is a Seadragon? It’s an underwater drone that looks like a miniature submarine and is intended to be used to inspect piers or the undersides of boats. Mostly, though, it’s just a cool-looking machine with a great name. For now the device is controlled with an Xbox controller, but Jon McBride, vice president of technology at Thunder Tiger Robotix (also a great name), could imagine building an autonomous version in the future. “The earliest one was called the Neptune,” McBride says. “Then it moved on to the Seawolf, and now, with how quickly it moves and responds and kind of fishes through the water … Seadragon.”
Most Pissed Off: That One Robot Inexplicably Holding Poker Chips
The Chinese company Sanbot has a line of robotic helpers that aim to be as friendly as possible. At its booth, one robot danced with visitors while displaying a cute cartoon baby on its head/monitor. Another smiled warmly at passersby while displaying a rose on the screen attached to its chest. Then there was this asshole:
No one could explain to me why this robot was so upset. A Sanbot spokesperson said one of the engineers must have programmed the robot to look angry the day I visited. The robot glowered relentlessly, never bothering to cast its eyes in a different direction. It was also holding a tray filled with poker chips for no particular reason. Was this robot from some kind of underground, steampunk speakeasy/casino? Was this its actual poker face? I never got answers, but I know which robot I wouldn’t want to cross when the singularity occurs.
Most Existential Dread: Robotis Dinos
These tiny robot dinosaurs, called Robotis Dinos, are similar to the modern, mechanical version of Lego. Kids assemble them, then watch them spring to life. The pair I saw, a T-Rex and a triceratops, were tethered to their display table but kept marching forward relentlessly anyway. They were trapped in perpetual, pointless motion. As a woman behind me watched their horrifying plight, she screeched, “Freeeee meeeeeee!”
Best Dancing: Robotis-Minis
This four-member robot boy band loves dancing to “Gangnam Style” and will probably have an impassioned, vaguely cultlike fan base on Twitter before the year is out.
Best Athlete: Forpheus, the Ping-Pong Champion
The robot that attracted the biggest crowd of onlookers was Forpheus, which looked like one of the aliens from War of the Worlds, if those aliens could hold ping-pong paddles. Forpheus proved to be a consistent, if not aggressive ping-pong player, patiently dispatching journalists in rally after rally. According to a spokesperson for Omron, the company that built Forpheus, the robot uses facial recognition and machine learning to recognize previous opponents and adapt its play style accordingly. It’s meant to be a “table tennis tutor,” so the robot’s goal was to keep the ball in play rather than smash winners. Here’s a video of Forpheus proving his athletic prowess in a rally against a large human athlete.