The Promise—and Complications—of Domestic Robots

Every year, for just a few days in a major city, a small team of
roboticists get to live the dream: ordering around their own
personal robot butlers. In carefully-constructed replicas of a

restaurant scene
or a domestic setting, these robots perform
any number of simple algorithmic tasks. “Get the can of beans
from the shelf. Greet the visitors to the museum. Help the humans with
their shopping
. Serve the customers
at the restaurant.

This is Robocup @
Home
, the annual tournament where teams of roboticists put
their autonomous service robots to the test for practical domestic
applications. The tasks seem simple and mundane, but considering
the technology required reveals that they’re really not.

The Robot Butler Contest

Say you want a robot to fetch items in the supermarket. In a
crowded, noisy environment, the robot must understand your
commands, ask for clarification, and map out and navigate an
unfamiliar environment, avoiding obstacles and people as it does
so. Then it must recognize the product you requested, perhaps in a
cluttered environment, perhaps in an unfamiliar orientation. It has
to grasp that product appropriately—recall that there are

entire multi-million-dollar competitions
just dedicated to
developing robots that can grasp a range of
objects
—and then return it to you.

It’s a job so simple that a child could do it—and so complex
that teams of smart roboticists can spend weeks programming and
engineering, and still end up struggling to complete simplified
versions of this task. Of course, the child has the advantage of
millions of years of evolutionary research and development, while
the first robots that could even begin these tasks were only
developed in the 1970s.

Even bearing this in mind, Robocup @ Home can feel like a place
where futurist expectations come crashing into technologist
reality. You dream of a smooth-voiced,
sardonic JARVIS
who’s already made your favorite dinner when
you come home late from work; you end up shouting “remember the
biscuits” at a baffled, ungainly droid in aisle five.

Caring for the Elderly

Famously, Japan is one of the
most robo-enthusiastic nations
in the world; they are the
nation that stunned us all with ASIMO in 2000, and several
studies
 have been conducted into the phenomenon. It’s no
surprise, then, that humanoid robotics should be seriously
considered as a solution
to the crisis of the aging population
. The Japanese government,
as part of its robots strategy, has already invested $44
million
 in their development.

Toyota’s Human Support Robot (HSR-2) is a simple
but programmable
 robot with a single arm; it can be
remote-controlled to pick up objects and can monitor patients.
HSR-2 has become the default robot for use in Robocup @ Home
tournaments, at least in tasks that involve manipulating
objects.

Alongside this, Toyota is working on exoskeletons to assist
people in walking after strokes. It may surprise you to learn that
nurses suffer back injuries more than any other occupation,
at roughly
three times the rate of construction workers
, due to the
day-to-day work of lifting patients. Toyota has a Care Assist robot/exoskeleton
designed to fix precisely this problem by helping care workers
with the heavy lifting.

The Home of the Future

The enthusiasm for domestic robotics is easy to understand and,
in fact, many startups already sell robots marketed as domestic
helpers in some form or another. In general, though, they skirt the
immensely complicated task of building
a fully capable
humanoid robot—a task that even
Google’s skunk-works department gave up on
, at least
until recently
.

It’s plain to see why: far more research and development is
needed before these domestic robots could be used reliably and at a
reasonable price. Consumers with expectations inflated by years of
science fiction saturation might find themselves frustrated as the
robots fail to perform basic tasks.

Instead, domestic robotics efforts fall into one of two
categories. There are robots specialized to perform a domestic
task, like iRobot’s
Roomba
, which stuck to vacuuming and became the most successful
domestic robot of all time by far.

The tasks need not necessarily be simple, either: the impressive
but expensive
automated kitchen
uses the world’s most dexterous hands to
cook meals, providing it can recognize the ingredients. Other
robots focus on human-robot interaction, like Jibo: they
essentially package the abilities of a voice assistant like Siri,
Cortana, or Alexa to respond to simple questions and perform online
tasks in a friendly, dynamic robot exterior.

In this way, the future of domestic automation starts to look a
lot more like smart homes than a robot or domestic servant. General
robotics is difficult in the same way that general artificial
intelligence is difficult; competing with humans, the great
all-rounders, is a challenge. Getting superhuman performance at a
more specific task, however, is feasible and won’t cost the
earth.

Individual startups without the financial might of a Google or
an Amazon can develop specialized robots, like
Seven Dreamers’ laundry robot
, and hope that one day it will
form part of a network of autonomous robots that each have a role
to play in the household.

Domestic Bliss?

The Smart Home has been a staple of futurist expectations for a
long time, to the extent that movies featuring
smart homes
out of control
are already a
cliché
. But critics of the smart home idea—and of the
internet of things more generally—tend to focus on the idea that,
more often than not, software just adds an additional layer of things that can
break
(NSFW), in exchange for minimal added convenience. A
toaster that can short-circuit is bad enough, but a toaster that
can refuse to serve you toast because its firmware is updating is
something else entirely.

That’s before you even get into the
security vulnerabilities
, which are all the more important when
devices are installed in your home and capable of interacting with
them. The idea of a smart watch that lets you keep an eye on your
children might sound like something a security-conscious parent
would like: a smart watch that
can be hacked to track children, listen in on their surroundings,
and even fool them into thinking a call is coming from their
parents
is the stuff of nightmares.

Key to many of these problems is the
lack of standardization
for security protocols, and even the
products themselves. The idea of dozens of startups each developing
a highly-specialized piece of robotics to perform a single domestic
task sounds great in theory, until you realize the potential
hazards and pitfalls of getting dozens of incompatible devices to
work together on the same system.

It seems inevitable that there are yet more layers of domestic
drudgery that can be automated away, decades after the first
generation of time-saving domestic devices like the dishwasher and
vacuum cleaner became mainstream. With projected market values into
the billions and trillions of dollars, there is no shortage of
industry interest in ironing out these kinks. But, for now at
least, the answer to the question: “Where’s my robot butler?”
is that it is gradually, painstakingly
learning how to sort through groceries
.

Image Credit:
Nonchanon
/ Shutterstock.com

Source: *FS – All – Science News 2 Net
The Promise—and Complications—of Domestic Robots