Cloi, the airport robot, is staring at me patiently, her large robot eyes blinking.
The approximately four-foot-tall automaton doesn’t seem flustered or annoyed that I don’t have my plane’s gate number readily available when it requests it. Nor does it flinch when I touch its “stomach,” where the robot’s computer touchscreen is located. Not that it’s supposed to, but Cloi reminds me of a robot Pillsbury Doughboy, and I was hoping it would grab its tummy and giggle. No luck.
I retrieve my boarding pass from my pocket and give Cloi (LG Electronics, its creator, spells it CLOi, and it’s pronounced like the name ) the information it’s requesting. Almost immediately, a map appears on the screen showing me the correct path to my gate. Entranced and enchanted by Cloi’s cute blinking eyes, I peel my eyes away from its (her?) robotic gaze.
There’s a crowd gathering around me, waiting their turn with the robot, so I quickly memorize where I’m supposed to go, and then wave good-bye. I hang back and watch as a family opt to use Cloi’s built-in camera to take a family pic. A few minutes later, a woman changes the language of the bot to English (Cloi can speak basic phrases in English, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese, in a feminine voice) and then gets instructions for where to find the nearest bathroom.
There’s no doubt about it: LG’s Cloi Airport Guide Robot, with its blinking eyes, roaming body, and futuristic form, is a hit at Incheon International Airport, the largest airport in South Korea and the primary gateway into the capital, Seoul.
But is Cloi a novelty or a bona fide helper? I mean, Incheon is full of computer screens and other signage telling people where to go; it’s about the easiest international airport to navigate (it’s been voted as one of the world’s best airports, according to Skytrax). And, I don’t need a robot to take a selfie for me I can do that with the phone in my pocket.
For LG’s robotics initiative, which oversees Cloi’s development, the answer to that question doesn’t really matter at least, not yet. For now, it’s about the advancement of technology, as well as good fun. After all, who doesn’t like a talking, moving, helping robot to remind us of sci-fi flicks we watched as kids?
Cloi debuted at CES 2017, along with a cleaning robot that is currently scrubbing floors at Seoul’s city hall, just like Rosie the Robot from The Jetsons. (The model I saw at the airport is different from the one LG showed off at CES 2017.)
The Cloi lineup expanded at CES this year, with the announcement of serving, shopping, and porter robots, although they have yet to make a public appearance in action. But the point of the robotic initiative, according to LG, is to showcase what the bots can do down the road.
“As an important part of our future growth engine, LG is committed to expanding its portfolio of robots that can deliver real convenience and innovation in our customers’ lives,” Rye Hye-jung, head of the smart solution business division for LG’s Home Appliance and Air Solutions Company, told Digital Trends in January. “We will continue to develop a wide range of products across commercial and home robots while seeking new opportunities to contribute to the advancement of the robotics industry.”
The LG bots do have their limitations — Cloi the home robot famously got stage frightduring LG’s press conference at CES 2018 — but that doesn’t mean they aren’t cool.
More than any other robot, Cloi embodies what most of us probably thought the future would be like when we were kids: robots running around, doing our bidding for us. But as the technology becomes more advanced, the reality of a full-fledged mechanical robot seems almost antiquated, as companies are creating smaller pieces of technology to assist us through things like phones and smart speakers.
Still, actual moving robots, if they ever were to become mainstream, would provide that last bit of automation lacking in our homes and offices. It’s cool to be able to start your washing machine from an app on your phone, but how much cooler would it be to have a robot load your laundry into the machine, take it out and put it into the dryer, and then fold those clothes and put them away? Now we’re talking.
Although I was on a press trip for LG (its global headquarters is in Seoul) when I ran into Cloi at the airport, our meeting at Incheon was total happenstance. The robot makes the rounds, offering assistance to passengers who look lost. I wasn’t lost, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to interact with the bot in its intended environment (and not under the supervision of its LG overlords).
I saw Cloi near the ticketing desk, pausing in front of people and asking if it could be of assistance, and then I saw it again as I wandered the terminal looking for my gate. I have no idea how the bot snuck through security with all that metal and technology running through its wires.
I discovered that Cloi was mostly used as a large, expensive camera for taking selfies. The bot had a healthy group of followers who were easily entranced by its robot-ness.
I’m sad to report that while I enjoyed my interaction with Cloi the robotic airport employee and watching it in action, I came away wishing for more of a robust experience. Maybe I was hoping it would take my hand and say something like, “Come with me if you want to live.” Or, more suited for the airport, “Come with me if you want to find the way to the secret luxury lounge with free wine, massages, and Michelin-starred food.”
Maybe I should stop comparing real-life robots to the ones I’ve seen in movies. Because we’ve all seen Terminator and what can happen when technology takes over.
At this time, the Cloi robots are in concept form and are not available to purchase. If they do become available, I’ll hold out for Cloi the Laundry Sorting, Folding, and Putting the Clothes Away robot. And in the meantime, I’ll continue to look at those airport screens to figure out how to get to my departure gate.