Jérôme Damelincourt, who runs the Robopolis store in Paris, agreed to give us his take on a world he has always been into: robotics. The robot Asimo already serves coffee and converses. Where is robotics heading? Atelier: Hello, Jérôme Damelincourt. People come from all over to visit Robopolis. How did you come up with the idea of opening a robot specialty store? Jérôme Damelincourt: In 2000, I decided to create Vie Artificielle (www.vieartificielle.com). The site was so successful and popular that in 2003 I opened the Robopolis store and simultaneously launched a dedicated website, This was a longtime dream I couldn’t shake.
What kind of people go to Robopolis?
There are two target customers: active enthusiasts and passive enthusiasts. The first category consists of people who want to put together their own robots and see them work; the second includes children and science fiction fans. Technology now enables humans to actually create what science fiction books and films depict. Some things are no longer just science fiction, but a reality.
You market all kinds of robots: action figures, utility robots, gadgets, and more. Which ones sell the best?
Utility robots are a big success. Roomba is an independent vacuum cleaner (see our selection). RC 3000 silently washes the floor single-handedly. We also have a robot lawnmower, and so forth. These products are not much more expensive than their traditional counterparts. Roomba costs the same as a good vacuum cleaner and is technically very good.
Do you think your business model—selling robots—is the one that will really take off? Could robot rentals get even bigger?
I think both are going to develop at the same time. People are going to continue buying robots to perform specific tasks at home like cleaning the floor, sending messages, or controlling the television. In another five years, I can definitely see robots being rented by large companies to do things like distribute catalogs at trade shows. Sales and rentals will serve different purposes; people aren’t going to rent Asimo for home use at the price it costs to buy it.
Despite its extensive resources, Sony had to stop producing its robot Aibo. Does that mean robots are too expensive to develop and not sufficiently profitable? Is there a chance companies will abandon research in robotics?
Aibo was a technological showpiece for Sony. The company had to create Aibo from scratch, starting with the technology that enables a robot to move on four legs. Aibo required continuous innovation. Companies no longer have to invest the kind of money in research that Sony did. They will now be able to sell Aibo-like robots for a much lower price. It’s like microcomputing: At first, manufacturing the computers was very expensive and the products weren’t very profitable, but the combination of the learning effect and economies of scale enabled microcomputing to reach the point where it is today Fifteen years from now, the robotics market will have surpassed the computer market.
I checked the website of a large household appliance store, and they don’t sell Roomba. I was very surprised. Are you? When will superstores start carrying consumer robots?
No, I’m not surprised. Major distributors only start carrying new items when they are sure they’ll sell a certain number of them. Roomba still belongs in specialized stores where risk-taking goes with the territory. However, I think that non-specialized stores will sell robots like Roomba within the coming year. In the United States, they already do.
Do you think robotics is going to become more of a B2B or a B2C market?
I don’t think either will dominate for the time being. A strong B2B market has already developed in the medical, security, and military sectors, but a lot of companies are also researching B2C possibilities.
In your opinion, can robots one day be equal to humans?
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Robots’ abilities are far from rivaling those of humans. No one has yet created a robot that can clear a table. No one knows how to explain to a machine what a glass is because glasses come in multiple forms and consist of multiple components. Developers of robot soccer players have set themselves a goal-have a team of robot soccer players beat the world champion soccer team-for 2050 (and a day sooner).
Won’t people have qualms about humanoid robots evolving alongside them?
People love humanoid robots. The more they resemble humans, the more people like them-unless they become too human. Surveys have shown nobody wants a robot with hair or skin. But everyone would love to have an Asimo at home!