At Home With Robots: The Coming Revolution
Normally, we think of robots as humanoid and self-aware, like Rosie or Data. Some day, they might be more like that, but robots are here in our homes today, cleaning our floors and even making our coffee. What does the future of human-robot relations hold?
11/26/08 4:00 AM PT
You might not think you have robots in your house, but think again. There's your dishwasher, for instance; you put dishes in it, walk away, and a half hour later they're clean. Same thing with your washing machine. Or your programmable coffeemaker.
Though these everyday mechanical devices aren't humanoid, they are on the robotic spectrum, in the sense that they perform functions with minimal human involvement.
"People use the word 'robotics' a lot, and it means a lot of different things," Rich Hooper, a robotics consultant who develops and designs computer-controlled machines for Austin, Texas-based Symtx, told TechNewsWorld. "Robotics has gotten so loosely defined that it means almost anything with movable parts."
Steve Rainwater, a robot technologist and editor of the Robots.net blog, agrees.
"'Robot' is a word that's almost impossible to define; it has come to be used for too many different things these days," Rainwater told TechNewsWorld. "Personally, I think of robots as autonomous machines that evolved initially with the help of humans. I also tend to think of the word robot as an ideal that we haven't really achieved yet, rather than just a description of the artifacts that have resulted from trying to realize that ideal."
Growth of an Industry
Whether they're called robots or just smart machines, these devices are quickly becoming an everyday feature of our lives. In fact, according to a study done by the International Federation of Robotics, there were 3.4 million personal domestic service robots in use at the end of 2007, and it predicted another 4.6 million domestic service robots will be sold between 2008 and 2012.
"The first possibility is that we'll eventually have general purpose humanoid robots that do many tasks and interact with us more or less like we interact with each other," Rainwater said. "This is the future so often predicted in science fiction stories. You might want to ask your household robot to do the dishes, babysit the kids, mow the lawn, or play a game of chess with you."
The smart machine path is one other -- perhaps more likely -- future.
"The other possibility is that homes of the future will have function-specific robotics integrated transparently into the house itself," Rainwater said. "The house will become a network of smart machines that interact with you and each other."
The Future Is Now
iRobot is one company that helped to make robots part of our everyday lives. There's the Roomba, which is an automatic vacuum cleaner, and the Scooba, an automatic floor washing system. Then there's the pool-cleaning Verro and the gutter-cleaning Looj.
"Roomba made practical robots a reality for the first time and showed the world that robots are here to stay," the company's Web site says. "With nearly two decades of leadership in the robot industry, iRobot remains committed to providing platforms for invention and discovery, developing key partnerships to foster technological exploration and building robots that improve the standards of living and safety worldwide."
Founded in 1990 by roboticists Colin Angle and Helen Greiner and headquartered in Bedford, Mass., iRobot has more than 400 employees and a wide selection of household robots.
Other robots available to consumers now are items like the Clocky, an alarm clock that spins away if it's chased, produced by Nanda; or security robots that travel around the premises of a home or business sold by companies like MobileRobots.
Honda has also been working on a humanoid robot project called "Asimo." Still in the development phase, Asimo can carry trays, push carts, climb stairs, and do a number of other tasks. In the future, it might be used to care for the elderly, provide service at social functions, and do simple housework. It is also being developed to work in conjunction with other appliances.
"In the home, Asimo could someday be useful as it can connect wirelessly to the Internet to retrieve requested data, for example," Alicia Jones, Honda's North American Asimo Project Supervisor, told TechNewsWorld. "Asimo could also be integrated with other household electronics so that it could control those devices as requested by a user. Of course, it will still be some time before Asimo is ready to help in other ways in the home."
Robots continue to fascinate people, if only because they see themselves reflected in these machines. And as they become more common, questions of the ethics of this kind of labor might come to the fore.
"If you're doing something that a human can do, you might as well have a human do it," Hooper said. "As much as I like robots, I don't really identify with them."
Rainwater argues the other side of this debate, suggesting that robots might eventually have something akin to basic human rights.
"Robots are fascinating because, unlike all the other machines we humans have invented, they're the first that may someday have the capacity to be our friends and companions," Rainwater said. "In a sense they're our children. Some people think robots may even eventually become our evolutionary successors. That's something to think about before you kick that robot dog that's annoying you."