For at least a decade, robotics and artificial intelligence companies have developed their ability to create machines that can perform a variety of practical household tasks. Last month, Boston Dynamics showed its robot dog Spot picking up clothes. Miso Robotic’s Flippy has been flipping burgers for years. Other startups have demonstrated laundry folding machines. The list continues. More recently, news broke that Amazon may be on the verge of introducing a home robot that can carry objects and follow commands from its owner.
But how likely are you to one day own a real robotic butler?
Robots are becoming more and more complex. As AI advances, it allows machines to solve more complex problems and chat reliably with humans. Still, robotics and AI companies say you’ll have to wait a while before you can own anything like Rosey the Robot from “The Jetsons.”
In fact, companies are struggling to market anything more complex than a robot vacuum — which has been cleaning homes for 20 years.
“We’ve been talking about home robots coming for a long time, and all we have so far is the vacuum cleaner,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation. “You see demos, but going from a demo to something that actually works and then something you can afford is the problem right now.”
Chore robots work well in factories where there is plenty of space, no small children around, and employees wearing protective gear. They are really good at doing a single repetitive task, like screwing a wheel.
But imagine introducing machines with feet and lifting capabilities into your home where things can go wrong. What if it falls on someone or a software update causes it to go haywire? It’s funny on “The Jetsons,” but it wouldn’t be so comical if your grandmother was the victim.
It’s a big challenge.
The biggest issue is safety, according to Marc Raibert, chairman and former CEO of Boston Dynamics, a robotics pioneer responsible for agile, animal-like robots.
“The more complicated the robot, the more safety issues there are. If you have a robot near a person and anything goes wrong, it’s a risk to that person,” Raibert said.
Things went wrong at work. In 2015, a 22-year-old man was killed while helping install a stationary robot at a Volkswagen factory in Germany. The robot pushed him against a metal plate and crushed him. In another case that year, a robot arm malfunctioned and struck and crushed a woman’s head at a Michigan auto plant.
It’s not that home security issues can’t be fixed. It’s that they haven’t been solved yet, robotics companies say. And making elaborate machines more household-friendly will increase the price.
Today’s mobile robots for factories can cost twice as much as an average new car. Take the robotic dog Spot. It costs around $75,000 without the arm tether that makes it useful for carrying stuff. Without the arm, it’s essentially a mobile surveillance machine. A humanoid robotic butler capable of autonomously performing a variety of tasks today could easily cost 10 times as much.
And robotics experts say people in the market for such a thing wouldn’t be willing to pay more than a few thousand dollars. It might be cheaper to pay a human to do the job. And humans could do it better.
In 2020, Walmart pulled its inventory robots off the ground after discovering that humans can scan products more easily and efficiently than bulky six-foot-tall machines.
Robots also have a dexterity problem. Most can pinch, grab, or use suction to hold an object. Meanwhile, humans can manipulate objects that come in different shapes and textures. Robotic limbs with human-like flexibility do exist, but they cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce.
“The era of gripping is still a long way off,” said Tim Enwall, CEO of Misty Robotics, a hardware company that builds personal robots for homes and offices. “It’s a very difficult problem to solve at a mass consumer price.”
Another challenge is that robots don’t know much about the world in which they operate. You can teach them what an object looks like, but robotic butlers should also understand where it is in your house.
Take, for example, a simple task like putting a drink in the fridge. A machine should understand your command and be able to independently navigate your home’s layout without spilling anything. He also needs to figure out which room in your house is the kitchen.
This kind of data requires collaborative input from consumers, and it’s something iRobot is working on by allowing Roomba users to tag where things are in their homes.
“The reason iRobot doesn’t sell a robot with an arm is that we don’t know where anything is,” said Colin Angle, president and founder of iRobot. “We try to get a better idea of what you really want to do. It’s useful for your cleaning robot, but it’s imperative for the next robot you want to buy.
So when will something more advanced than a smart vacuum really make an impact? Most say it will be decades away.
Amazon has reportedly invested in its “Vesta” home robot project. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Bots will likely continue to appear in new places as companies lay the groundwork for something more advanced to come.
You’ll see more delivering food, carrying packages, cleaning surfaces, and carrying groceries.
“I think we’ll find uses for home robots in the next eight to 10 years,” Raibert said. “Someone will pioneer a lower-cost mechanism that does a useful set of things. I believe that; it’s just not tomorrow.