Robot Butlers Will Do Your Chores and Care for Your Family
Meghan Brown posted on November 15, 2018 |
Doing chores and performing healthcare duties will be a thing of the past once we all have a robot a...

It can be easy to generalize our talk about robots under a single “robotics” banner, but there are significant differences between the various subsets of robotics, such as industrial versus consumer robots.  There is some overlap, where innovations made in one sphere are applied in the other, and vice versa.  But the Average Joe isn’t too invested in what robot arm can build cars the fastest—most people want to know, “What can a robot do for me?”

The answer to this question leads to the consumer robotics market, where engineers, programmers, roboticists and designers are striving to develop robots that will make our daily lives easier, help care for the sick and injured, or provide companionship and entertainment.

The current market for personal and domestic robots is growing, with a rapid rise expected over the next three years, according to a report by the International Federation of Robotics.  Vacuum and floor cleaning robots are currently the most established type of robot in the market.  According to the IFR, the value of the domestic service robot market is up by 27 percent, to USD$2.1 billion, which includes robots sold for tasks including vacuuming, window cleaning, and lawn maintenance, among others.

“Floor cleaning robots, robo-mowers and robots for edutainment (the latter increasingly referred to as social robots), have increasingly become part of our lives. Future product visions point to domestic robots of higher sophistication, capability and value, such as assistive robots for supporting the elderly, for helping out with household chores and for entertainment,” said Martin Haegele, chairman of the IFR Service Robot Group and author of the report.

So, what do people really want from home robots?  And what types of robots could fulfill these wishes and applications?  There are new, more advanced bots making their debut each year, and soon they will be capable enough to be truly useful, and ubiquitous enough to bring the price down to something reasonable affordable.

“Can’t Someone Else Do It?”

Let’s be honest – we all basically want a robot butler.

When we dream of home robots, we’re usually dreaming of the answer to the question, to quote the immortal words of Homer Simpson: “Can’t someone else do it?”  The only difference is exchanging robots for garbage collectors when determining who we want to give all that work.

One of the biggest draws to the idea of home robots is having something to take care of the many important and necessary—but boring—tasks that take up our time each day.

Whenever robots enter the discussion, there are concerns about lost jobs and unemployment, but much of what we would have domestic robots do are tasks that are done by the homeowner themselves, and not external workers.

“If ‘displace more jobs’ means ‘eliminate dull, repetitive, and unpleasant work,’ the answer would be yes. How unhappy are you that your dishwasher has replaced washing dishes by hand, your washing machine has displaced washing clothes by hand, or your vacuum cleaner has replaced hand cleaning? My guess is this ‘job displacement’ has been very welcome, as will the ‘job displacement’ that will occur over the next 10 years,” said Hal Varian, chief economist for Google.

Household chores make up the most anticipated set of tasks poised for a robotic takeover.  Who doesn’t want someone—or something—to wash their dishes, help with laundry, clean up a room by putting things away and vacuuming?  While it’s true that Roombas already exist to vacuum your floors, there are also many more future chore-bots in the works capable of handling more complex chores, such as laundry.

While 20th century machine washers and dryers were one great step forward, the whole process still requires a person to load and unload the machines, and to fold and sort clean clothing at the end of the process.

Laundry folding robots, Foldimate (left) and Laundroid. Relative sizes in image are not to scale.

Laundry folding robots, Foldimate (left) and Laundroid. Relative sizes in image are not to scale.

The complexity of laundry as a task is a challenge, but there are already a few laundry folding robots in development and soon to be available to consumers.  Two examples are the Foldimate and the Laundroid, which are cabinet-like robots which claim to do the work of folding laundry quickly and easily, with minimal human involvement.  Both laundry robots use a combination of machine vision to identify articles of clothing, grippers and arms to fold, and machine learning to determine the optimal way to manipulate each piece and sort it at the end of the process.

The concept is great, and if they work as well as they claim, machines like those could definitely make laundry night a bit less time consuming.  Though at present a person still needs to transfer a pile of clothes from the dryer to the folding machine—putting it in a drawer or feeding the pieces into the process by hand—it’s easy enough to imagine how adding some other robot into the process, or a few more tech additions, could take care of these in-between human steps, too.  Not to mention activities like ironing clothing, or putting it away in appropriate closets and drawers.

Cooking is another task that often features in a science fiction home, where food is prepared and served almost like magic, with no effort from the diner.  While we aren’t at the level of a Star Trek food replicator just yet, the idea of an autonomous robotic kitchen is thriving. 

Perhaps the most interesting example the come across the counter is the robotic kitchen by Moley Robotics in the UK.  The system features two eye-catching, fully articulated robotic arms that move just like a human’s do, and can cook up a variety of stored recipes with fresh ingredients right in front of your eyes.

It’s exceptionally slick in looks and performance, and is being billed as a way for anyone to enjoy recipes created by famous chefs—or various cultures around the world—which are prepared exactly the same as those humans would do it.  However, at least for now, the system is still in development and will have the notable obstacles of requiring users to have a house they can renovate to install the system, as well as needing the money to make the initial purchase as well as covering the installation costs.  This means in the short term, at least, these will remain very much a luxury item.

However, it’s easy to see how a robotic meal preparation system and recipe library could change this household task in the future.  For example, by enabling people with mobility or cognitive impairments, such as seniors, to be able to customize a menu for their nutritional and health needs, and have it all prepared for them with a simple touch of a screen.  Add in the capability to wash dishes afterwards and put them away in the cupboards, and many people who need assistance with these daily tasks would be able to live independently.

A robotic kitchen will also save the time spent preparing meals with options such as remote activation, where you can choose your meal and start the cooking process on the way home from work or school, and be able to eat as soon as you arrive home—freeing up time to spend with family and friends, pursuing hobbies, or enjoying entertainment.

A True Robot Butler for All Your Household Needs

But as cool as a kitchen with robot hands would be, many still dream of the day that autonomous, free-standing, humanoid robotic butlers are available to do chores and clean up after us.

Since humanoid robots are one of the holy grails of robotics, it’s no surprise that there are tons of companies aiming to develop the first and best home robotic butler.  Rosie the Robot, from the classic cartoon of The Jetsons, is of course the archetypal example—able to converse with the family, perform all household chores, and learn new tasks with ease. 

Though true autonomous service robots may still be more than a decade away, there are already more than one bot on offer that claims to possess the capability to handle household chores ahd interaction.  Pal Robotics’ REEM (geared more toward customer service), and Honda’s ASIMO (now retired) are two such examples, but Aeolus Robotics is offering a household robot that—so far—is functionally the closest to a true robotic housekeeper.

(Image courtesy of Aeolus Robotics.)
(Image courtesy of Aeolus Robotics.)

Granted, all three home robots are described as capable of human-like motion, interaction with humans, and the ability to learn new tasks—but Aeolus is designed specifically for a variety of household-specific chores, such as operating a traditional vacuum or mop to clean floors, recognizing more than 1,000 household items, and being able to pick them up and put them away where they belong.  Aeolus can also learn to recognize family members and their preferences, such as knowing which objects a person is likely to ask for.

Aeolus’ ability to learn tasks, objects and people is built on a smart framework of artificial intelligence, machine learning and biometric sensors, and any capable home robot will need to include a similar set of smart technologies.  Facial recognition, object recognition from any angle or viewpoint, being able to differentiate between similar objects, and being able to react and interact intelligently with the humans around it will all be vital capabilities.

Caregiving Bots for the Elderly and Injured

While having a robot to do your chores will be great, possibly the real advantage to home robots will be in the medical and healthcare sector.  Robots are already making appearances in medical applications such as surgery, but the biggest impacts will come from robots in the home being able to care for the elderly, ill, and people with disabilities—keeping them living in their own homes, rather than inside an overburdened hospital system.

Ranging from the cute to the capable, robots are being developed around the world to perform tasks such as assisting people to walk, transferring patients from a bed or chair into a wheelchair, monitoring for falls or unusual behavior—alongside the basic housekeeping tasks discussed above.

 “We will see robots in health care and care of the elderly. But these may not be humanoid robots, but devices designed to work in specialized spaces designed for them,” said David Clark, a senior research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

Robear lifting a patient for transfer from a bed to a wheelchair. (Image courtesy of Riken.)

Robear lifting a patient for transfer from a bed to a wheelchair. (Image courtesy of Riken.)

One of the more amusingly designed examples is Robear, a patient care robot with a cute bear face meant to help put patients at ease.  Robear is designed to lift elderly patients out of a fully or partially reclining position on a bed, and transfer them to a wheelchair.  Robear was developed a few years ago in Japan, which faces significant issues in caring for an aging population that is overburdening it’s healthcare system—a problem also growing in the US, though as yet to a lesser degree.

“We hope that this robot will lead to advances in nursing care, relieving the burden on caregivers,” said Toshiharu Mukai, leader of the Robot Sensor Systems research team responsible for developing Robear.

But many cases will require a robot capable of more than just lift-and-transfer actions, which is where advanced robotic aides such as Softbank Systems’ Romeo comes in. A more versatile bot, Romeo has a humanoid design intended to assist the elderly as they experience cognitive and physical decline.  The goal is to keep these elderly people living independently in their own homes for as long as possible, and so Romeo is programmed with a variety of physical tasks and interpersonal interactions.

(Image courtesy Project Romeo/Softbank Robotics.)
(Image courtesy Project Romeo/Softbank Robotics.)

Romeo can perform assistive actions, such as picking up and moving objects, opening doors, climbing stairs, providing mobility assistance while a patient is walking, and being able to identify if a patient has fallen and needs emergency services to be contacted.  The robot can also be programmed with specific care routines which are triggered by the time of day or by the patient’s request, and can respond to keywords and activities by asking questions and offering topics of discussion.  Romeo can even be set to detect a patient is napping and wake them, or offer food, drink and medications at prescribed intervals.

These functions aren’t unique to Romeo, of course; most robots intended for in-home care and supervisions possess some combination of the same capabilities, with more being added all the time.

“I’m actually incredibly hopeful and confident, particularly when it comes to robots being used for assisted care,” said Siddhartha Srinivasa, a professor of robotics at University of Washington’s school of computer science and engineering. “My hope is that they’ll be a useful physical robot in the assistive care domain in the next 10 to 15 years.”

Where Will Home Robots Be in the Coming Decades?

While these robots all look and sound cool already, it’s truly just the beginning for home robots, and these are only a few examples of the dozens of robots, AI assistants and smart home devices currently in development.  As the basic technologies used to create these bots and devices improve—better robotic mechanics, faster and more capable AI, advanced machine learning, smarter personality programs—the closer we’ll get to having a true home robot companion capable of helping us, talking to us, entertaining us and caring for us.

“Eventually, you are going to see the humanoid-type of robot, like in Isaac Asimov’s book, I, Robot. That’s definitely going to happen,” said Rob Coneybeer, co-founder and managing director of venture capital firm Shasta Ventures. “It’s still 20 or 25 years out, but I think that type of robot will fit into the framework of what we think of as our traditional living environments.”

Do you have a favorite robot that we missed—one that will make you feel like you’re truly living in the future? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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