Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: CES 2020: The Big Trends for Business

Weird robots kick off CES 2020

Food ferrying cats, TP carrying roll bots? Robots are the sideshow you didn't know CES needed.

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It's been a strange start. We on the robotics beat knew as much when Proctor & Gamble debuted a robot capable of delivering a roll of TP to a squatter in distress through its Charmin brand.

Also: More CES coverage at CNET

The Charmin robot is getting lots of eyebrow raises as CES 2020 kicks off. RollBot isn't a real product, but a concept meant to draw attention to the future of the bathroom experience. As ZDNet Editor-in-Chief Larry Dignan rightly observed, "It's a bit unclear to me whether the products or puns in the press materials are worse."

True, as Baron's contributor Eric Savitz points out, that every company is a technology company in 2020, but maybe Charmin should stick to cartoon bears.

But that's just the tip of the engineering ice burg at this year's Titanic tech ball. As the event kicks off, we've also been introduced to a robot cat that (what else?) is designed to carry food to diners in restaurants. 

Of course, a robot cat waiter makes sense. 

BellaBot is the creation of Chinese tech firm PuduTech. Believe it or not, it's actually a reboot of PuduTech's existing robot waiter product, which was essentially an autonomous rack on wheels that delivered food on trays. The cat aspect exists as a cartoon character on a new screen interface. 

Why a cat? I don't know. No one seems to know. It's CES 2020, that's why.

The experience is actually interactive. When you stroke the cartoon cat's ears, it purrs. It also talks. "The owner's hands are so warm." That's literally what it says. When it wants you to pick up food, it meows. Why? CES 2020.

What's interesting here is that PuduTech is a legitimate robotics company with plenty of units at the market. It's distributed about 2000 robotic waiters to restaurant owners in China, a surging market for robotics thanks in large part to the country's Made in China 2025 initiative, which has stoked the automation fires across a bustling startup scene.

So why the cartoon cat face? It's an indication of something we've been expecting for some time: Robots are no longer novel on their own. They're becoming commonplace, so much so that firms can no longer rely on functional technology alone to stand out. If you want to win at the robotics game in the 2020s, you need a gimmick. A purring cartoon cat with an attitude might do the trick.

Last up in the whacky robot sector is UBTech's Walker robot update. Walker is highly reminiscent of Sony's Asimo robot, and it's designed to do pretty much the same thing: Hype up a crowd. This year, Walker has added robotic Tai Chi and yoga to its repertoire of circus tricks.

And that's very much what these robots represent, the circus we've willed upon ourselves with our technology obsession. 

To be sure, some very novel and useful robots will be debuting at CES this year. Stay tuned for more coverage on some mind-blowing demos and unveilings in store from some pioneers in the field. And I've heard tell of (but haven't yet taste tasted) a robotic pizza oven that continues a fascinating trend toward automation in the pizza game. 

But be warned, the silly antics have only just begun. If it's to be a week trudging through a crowded hall full of zany automatons, this reporter, frankly, would rather flee for Disneyland.