Why Aren’t Robots Doing All My Household Chores By Now?
September 4, 2022
We might still be waiting on flying cars but there are some striking similarities between the future as foretold by ‘The Jetsons’ and the time we’re living in now. The show itself is about to celebrate its 60th anniversary — it debuted on September 23rd, 1962, a century before it’s set. That means we’re only 40 years away from the Jetsons’ world of Rosie the Robot, toothbrushing machines and homes above the clouds.
So where are all the robots like Rosie? Hopefully, home robots do get better, and our apartments and houses start looking a little more like the Jetsons. After all, if the smart home does become a reality for most people, a variety of home robots, overseen by smart home technology, could take on all sorts of tasks we’d rather not do. This would give us humans a lot more time to do things that we love, or at least, things we like far better than taking out the trash.
The recent news regarding Amazon acquiring iRobot shouldn’t surprise anybody as they move toward being more of an innovation company and becoming a leading platform builder in home robotics. The acquisition of the maker of the popular Roomba robotic vacuums comes following Amazon’s recent unveiling of its own home robot, Astro. I covered its debut in an earlier post ‘It’s not the Jetsons, but it is a robot named Astro.’ Amazon has incorporated Artificial Intelligence navigation technology into Astro. This microwave-sized bot resembles Wall-E and can roam around your home and take video when you’re not there. It also functions as a personal assistant that can recognize family members and follow you around.
Adoption of Astro has been extremely low and I’d imagine a little disappointing to Amazon which may have motivated them to purchase iRobot. Amazon obviously hasn’t given up on having a robot in every home sooner or later.
Interestingly, Amazon isn’t the only company out there looking to put helpful robots into homes.
Other robotic news came out the same week as Amazon’s iRobot purchase. Tesla released a sneak preview of Optimus Subprime, their robotic humanoid. After the preview, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said he thinks the impact of the Optimus could someday exceed that of the company’s popular electric vehicles.
Musk also announced that the company is prioritizing the development of Optimus this year over other products. Musk’s vision is that of a bot that could take on all the boring, repetitive tasks that humans would rather not do.
Version 1 of Optimus is projected to start production in 2023. While Musk has suggested his company’s robot will someday provide a nearly inexhaustible amount of mechanized, non-human labor, he also outlined how the robot will also help us at home with everyday tasks. It may be hard to imagine, but Musk’s vision as Optimus develops, is that it will transform the world to a degree even greater than his car company. And they’ll make sure it’s safe, no Terminator stuff.
For Amazon, much of the early speculation on the company’s purchase of iRobot frame it as part of a larger effort to better understand its customers. And no doubt, adding the home mapping capability of the Roomba to the already rich data profiles Amazon has through our purchase history and Alexa voice interactions will give the company an even better contextual understanding with which to sell us even more stuff.
Robotics look to be a natural evolution of the smart home. I expect the roboticization of our homes will ultimately lead to a mega billion dollar market. Today’s consumer robot market, mostly products like the Roomba, is forecasted to be a $9 billion market next year. One can only imagine how big it will be once multipurpose, life-assisting robots, like Musk’s vision for Optimus, are widely available. $9 billion is a lot of robots. Besides the existing robot vacuums and mops you may already be familiar with, there are a lot of other current practical applications of home robots.
Advancements in AI have also fueled a whole other class of robots that can complete more specialized tasks, like emptying cat litter, cleaning grills and pools. There are also social robots, which are designed to simulate companionship, set reminders, and anticipate the schedules of the people using them — an application that’s particularly helpful for seniors. One such device, called ElliQ, recently went on sale in the US, and New York State already has plans to distribute 800 of these robots among the state’s older residents.
I’ve covered a number of robots in past posts, ranging from the Snowbot S1 snow blower robot to the Ayi DRM3–6001 lawnmowing robot and more. You can check out details on these and more interesting home robots on these links:
- Soon there’ll be a robot to do everything …
- Backyard Smart Home Tech to Save You Time and Effort
- No Green Thumb? No Problem. Here’s a Robot to Help …
And it’s not like robotics is something new. Robots have been assembling our cars and trucks for years in automotive plants. More recently robots have been showing up in the restaurant industry — and none too soon as restaurants, like other businesses, have struggled with filling open positions. You may have already enjoyed a burger cooked by Miso Robotics Flippy 2 or may be served a drink at your favorite bar sometime soon by Brillo. Astro was Amazon’s first attempt at home robotics, and with Roomba’s huge patent portfolio and in-house expertise, I expect we’ll see much more interesting new products from them in coming years.
Industry has and always will lead in terms of automation adoption, and that’s partly why the leading robotics companies have invested so much over the past decade in building out their robotics platforms. For Amazon and Tesla, It gives them a strategic advantage in manufacturing, warehousing, logistics, and other parts of their core business. Another advantage Amazon and Tesla have is they can develop and amortize their robotic investments across both their industrial and consumer-facing markets.
With all of their in-house expertise/experience and automation know-how, both are now turning their attentions toward the consumer market. Amazon and Tesla are known for having quite lengthy product development road maps and have already gotten their first products ready for market. In Amazon’s case, with adding iRobot to their portfolio they can now bulk up their home robotics lab launched a few years ago.
A Carnegie Mellon team recently developed software that teaches robots how to learn new tasks, simply by observing humans doing the same tasks first. These robots have figured out how to open cabinets and remove trash bags without any direct instructions and could eventually learn how to complete chores just by watching YouTube videos. While the research is still preliminary, the software offers a glimpse into an uncertain future where robots are more helpful companions around the house.
Dyson, a company known for its fancy vacuums, revealed recently that it’s been building out a team to develop robots that can sort through dishes and even clean under couch cushions. Samsung suggested last year that they may soon have robot butlers roaming around the house, picking up dirty towels and pouring glasses of wine. Still, aside from smart speakers and semi-automated appliances, home robots are hardly common in the average household right now. But the future of these device, and what they might ultimately do in our homes, will likely take shape in the next few years.
Versions of home robots have been around for years, and they’re becoming a lot more useful. Robot vacuum cleaners like Roomba, which is about two decades old, have evolved from relatively simple automatic robots into artificially intelligent devices that work with smart speakers and incorporate computer vision to study the rooms they’re cleaning. The latest Roomba models can even travel to and from charging docks, where they empty themselves, all on their own.
Most of these robots can’t accomplish much beyond what they’re explicitly designed to do, which can make the idea of spending hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars on one of these devices unappealing. This is the problem that the Carnegie Mellon researchers aimed to solve by designing their software. The software can be installed into any robot, and adapts based on the physical capabilities of that particular device. After studying what the human within its home is doing, the robot tries to teach itself how to complete the same task, using whatever mechanical limbs it might have.
The most promising advances in AI-powered robotics have yet to make it to market. And many of the robots consumers can buy are still struggling with basic problems. Amazon’s Astro robot can move around on even surfaces but can’t climb stairs, and sometimes struggles with navigation problems. Most home robots similarly lack the dexterity needed to grab and hold objects, which is a prerequisite for most chores. There’s also the risk of the robot making a mess instead of cleaning one up. iRobot famously had to update its Roomba software after pet owners complained that the vacuums couldn’t spot dog poop on the floor and would run over it, smearing it all over. Ouch …
Home robots could get a boost as smart home tech takes off. Apple, Amazon, Samsung, and Google are already collaborating on Matter, a common platform for smart home devices made by different companies. The hope is that tech could eventually direct a fleet of our devices, which, collectively, could monitor security cameras, adjust the thermostat, and turn lights on and off. This idea that the entire home could become more autonomous exists alongside the dream of a robo-butler.
Imagine a Rosey The Robot scenario, where you have one super-complex robot that can do everything. It can vacuum your floor, it can fold your laundry and do the dishes. An alternative vision is kind of an ambient intelligence that stitches together many devices in the home that collectively form, essentially, one big distributed robot. Still, it’s not clear yet how home robots will ultimately fit into that picture since many still aren’t that sophisticated.
Regarding Amazon, iRobot and privacy, I’ve heard the theories that Amazon will leverage the Roomba home mapping to sell me more stuff. Afterall, my Alexa’s all over the house are supposed to already be spying on me, right? My biggest fear isn’t Amazon mapping my home, but instead that the home robotics market will be dominated by only a couple of technology giants. While others have exciting projects they are working on, do we really think Amazon or Tesla won’t be able to buy them or simply beat them on price?
Chances are the two companies’ biggest competition will come from Asia, where Samsung, LG, Sony and some Chinese companies have been working hard on building robot platforms. Sony is particularly interesting given their interest in cooking and robotics. Samsung has also shown interest with their Bot Chef.
As two of the world’s biggest technology companies, and a lot of other big consumer product companies are getting serious about the home robotics market, we should all be prepared for the coming wave of home robot assistants. So where is your home automation headed? A super Roomba, robotic butlers or weed-pulling garden bot?
I’m curious if you’re already using some type of home robotics. If so, I’d imagine it may be a vacuum like Debbie and I — is your voice assistant integrated for on command cleaning. We can order our Roomba to clean but it’s rare as we have it set to go to work when Alexa detects Debbie and I are both away from home. I went into this in more detail in a previous post ‘Alexa and Robot Vacuum Cleaners.’
I’m also looking into lawnmowing robots for our new home. I love the idea of automating that but am also pretty picky about my lawn. Yeah, I’m that guy with the perfectly straight lines. Is lawnmowing a task you’d happily give up to a robot? If you have already, how do you like the model you chose?
Let Debbie and I know in the comments, DMs and emails as we really enjoy hearing from you. Thanks again to all those following Debbie and I through our home building journey. It’s great to hear your success stories and suggestions as we move through the process. And if you like the content I’m posting each week, don’t forget to ‘Like’ and ‘Follow.’ Until next week …
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