Where’s Our Rosie? Why We Don’t Have Domestic Robots Yet

What it will take to develop a multitasking, humanoid domestic robot—and whether we even really need one.

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Jane Jetson & Rosey the Robot

Materials

Metal! Good for strength and durability, not so good for fragile human skin and fine china. Imagine Little Tommy accidentally running into a 120 lb. aluminum robot in the hallway and you can see why homeowners would be reluctant to buy the Chore-Bot 2000. Not to mention that most robots today work in factories, where their hard grips are an asset, not a liability like they’d be in a home full of breakable eggs and wine glasses.

That’s why researchers are working to create machines out of softer materials that would leave grandma unharmed if her robot was on the fritz. Earlier I covered the research of Eduardo Torres-Jara of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, who is working on a soft robotic arm with tactile sensors on its fingertips that could handle delicate objects and be manipulated by human hands, meaning you could gently pull its fingers apart if it grabbed something it wasn’t supposed to without fearing for your safety.

(MORE: How Foxconn’s Million-Machine ‘Robot Kingdom’ Will Change the Face of Manufacturing)

This also has ramifications when it comes to people accepting and even embracing a robot presence in their homes. No one wants the Terminator walking around their kitchen. But a soft, cuddly robot that you could store in your closet? Much more appealing.

Cost

Robots have to be cost-competitive with human labor if any company hopes to sell them on a large scale. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a housekeeper last year was $21,150. Willow Garage’s PR2, which one UC Berkeley professor programmed to fold laundry, sells to researchers for $400,000.

Alan Band / Getty Images

Let’s say in the future they could drastically improve its capabilities and keep it at the same price point. You’d still have to own the robot for nearly 20 years before you could justify its cost compared to a housekeeper’s annual wage, not counting any maintenance or updates that might be required.

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