No it isn’t. Don’t believe all the hype. The modern family isn’t getting a new member, yet. The last Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas featured a dozen home robots, but none of them was the human-like cyborg of science fiction. They are all specialized robots focused on a limited set of tasks: floor cleaners, lawn mowers, grill and cat litter box cleaners. If the smartest home robot we have now is the Roomba vacuum cleaner, there must be a reason.
It’s been a hard day’s night…
To be honest, there are many reasons. First of all it’s hard to make a robot do everything. Satoshi Shigemi is the project leader of Asimo development, one of the most famous robots ever. His approach is simple “we want to design a robot that could help people, to realize that dream we are constantly asking ourselves what kind of robot would be able to change society“. In other words, it’s not easy to find out what people exactly want. Home is a personal space and consumer needs are many, it’s impossible today that a single robot can address them all.
Second, a home robot with proper humanoid features is hard to achieve. Some can argue that it’s not necessary that the robot is reminiscent of a human being. In fact, most people feel revulsion toward robots that are too humanoid in appearance. And developers do not want the appearance to be “too” human, as this would encourage false expectations with regard to robot’s capabilities.
Another caveat is that a home robot can be extremely expensive. Hardware is expensive. Artificial intelligence algorithms are expensive. I want to add that many of the tasks performed by non-manipulators robots can be executed by software and holograms. There’s no need to have a physical robot to read aloud a book, turn off the lights or read the traffic. I wrote about it in my post about virtual AI assistants.
Last but not least, there’s no common platform for home robots development. Each project has its own set of rules, software (for ex. facial recognition), algorithms, sensors etc… There’s no standard. It’s a Babel.
…but when I’m home everything seems to be right
The consumer robot market is fast growing. The graph is telling us two important things:
- the market is almost going to triplicate between 2010 and 2025
- the “personal and service robots” cluster is to become much larger than industrial automation
The reality is that there’s much more than Roomba. This video is a fantastic collection of the state of the art with humanoid robots today. I appreciate it’s clearly long, half an hour, so I suggest you flag this post as “read later” and come back with the spirit of watching a documentary.
At this stage, we have a certainty “the home robot market is about to explode” and an uncertainty “when robots will become human-like“.
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It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll
The road to a nice looking and capable home robot is still long. What does it take to get there? And how long will it take? I tried to put down a possible evolution on a timeline.
2015 – 2020
Specialized home robots get smarter. Today my favorite home robot is Echo, the Amazon voice command device that can answer questions, play music and control other home devices. They called it Alexa, but it’s far to be humanoid. Echo is important because it exploits three essential technologies: voice recognition, cloud and internet of things. Future robots will be dependent upon them. In the meantime startups and big players will continue to add new functionalities to home robots.
2020 – 2025
Emotional robots win the market. Believe me or not, it’s much easier for a robot to have a conversation rather than “doing” some stuff. Driven by needs in education and entertainment, Siri-like AIs will begin to populate non human like devices. People will never feel alone anymore at home; whether it’s not clear if in the room there will be Amazon, the cloud or the NSA. It won’t be uncommon that kids study with the aid of a robot.
2025 – 2030
EA Sports launches FIFA 2025, the soccer match played into the game is indistinguishable from reality. The same applies to humanoid robots. The Japanese Actroid becomes the standard. It’s difficult for the human eye to distinguish a real human from an android, even when it moves or speak. New generation of batteries allow them to operate full day.
2030 – 2035
Corporations employ humanoid robots on a regular basis for concierge services. They are able to walk and move into environments “infested” by humans. They will begin to show up in stores, hotels and airports to deal with clients. Mass production will lower costs and wealthy people will try the first generation of personal robots. It will be mainly for business or nursing at home.
2035 – 2040
The first humanoid home robot goes on the market with a price ranging between a quality smartphone and a city scooter. Manufactures change approach: they don’t craft “products”, they build platforms. Independent developers enrich the two or three existing standards with a lot of apps and plugins. Virtually no home robot will be equal to another; the high level of personalization will drive mass adoption.
Conclusion on home robot evolution
When I studied the “home robot” topic, there’s a recurring concept I understood and really loved. Researching robots is a journey in understanding human beings. This is not banal at all, especially if we want social robots. Robots that can take care of the elderly, share our space, give suggestions to humans. And that’s the main reason why I believe the research will go ahead until they will go mainstream.
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