On The Jetsons, Rosie was the robot maid with a heart of silicon and the voice of an aging cocktail waitress. She did everything: cook, clean, take care of the kids. Today, a robot can help you disarm a bomb in Afghanistan, but it can’t make you an omelette.
So, where is our Rosie? Why don’t we have robots in our homes that can do the cleaning, cooking and housework that we don’t want to do? Sure there are robots that can mow your lawn, clean your pool and vacuum your floors, but nothing like the do-it-all domestic robot that helped George, Jane, Judy and Elroy go about their daily lives.
Recently Greg Shirakyan, the Microsoft Robotics developer responsible for the roaming party photographer robot, penned a fascinating blog post exploring the question “What is a household robot?” His definition: “A device that can intelligently move parts or all of itself around a home and do useful stuff” and that is “not being continuously controlled by a person, and not getting stuck.” Simple, right?
Not quite. Shirakyan points out that our homes are set up to accommodate full-grown human beings. We make minor adjustments for children and pets because we are emotionally attached them. Thus, we have two options: reconfigure our homes to accommodate appealing, useful robots or create robots advanced enough to navigate and manipulate environments made for us.
Let’s posit that our end goal is some variation of Rosie, a humanoid, multi-tasking domestic robot that takes commands through speech and visual cues. What, exactly, is holding us back?
Intelligence & Autonomy
One reason you don’t have a robot housekeeper is that robots just aren’t that smart right now. Not that they can’t perform complicated tasks, it’s just that they can’t perform them autonomously. While footage of Honda’s ASIMO pouring a fresh glass of juice is impressive, you probably don’t have time to lay out a thermos of juice and a cup on a tray every morning; if you did, you’d probably just pour yourself the juice and save the robot the trouble.
Let’s put it this way: If you had a butler and you asked him to make you a sandwich, clean your bedroom and do your laundry, you’d be pretty annoyed if you had to take all of the ingredients out of the refrigerator for him, lead him by hand to your bedroom to clean it and then separate all of the colors in your laundry basket before letting him put your clothes in the washing machine.
Make no mistake, there have been some amazing advances in robot autonomy lately. It’s just that the human standard for autonomy is pretty high—a 7-year-old learning about responsibility can take on more household chores than even the most advanced robot.