While robots are becoming more useful for rudimentary duties, their lack of social sensibilities keep them from being common household items.
In 2015, you’ll be able to eat at a restaurant with a robot chef, stay at a hotel with robot front-desk staff and bellhops or use a robot to shovel your driveway after a snowstorm.
But despite rapidly advancing technology and falling costs, many experts say we’re still a few years away from a time when robots become mainstream.
Among the drawbacks: many robots available now are designed to perform a single task, and others aren’t social enough to make people want to bring them into their families.
Roboticists are making progress on both fronts. One of the most popular commercially available robots is the Roomba vacuum cleaner. Its maker, iRobot, has sold more than 12 million since it first hit the market more than a decade ago.
Chris Jones, director of strategic technology development at iRobot, credits the growing sales to better autonomous navigation made possible by better quality and more cost-effective sensors.
“We’re now working on the technology to put hands on robots,” he said. This could allow robots to “physically interact with and manipulate the environment, like doing laundry or unloading groceries.”
Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Laboratory, and her team have spent the last few years developing JIBO, marketed as the world’s first family robot.
JIBO doesn’t have arms, but the 6-pound, 11-foot-tall robot has two hi-res cameras that help it see and enable it to act as a personal assistant and messenger by delivering reminders and messages around the house.
With 360-degree range microphones and natural language processing abilities, JIBO also uses natural cues like speech and smile detection to take photographs and learn the preferences of each family member.
“The home experience should be warm and welcoming and robots should allow your family to share experiences,” Breazeal said. “I don’t want my home to feel like starship enterprise,” she said.
Breazeal believes that personal social robots are likely to take off in the next two years.
“Robots are moving towards empowering people by not requiring people to stop what they are doing to engage with it. Rather, it supports community engagement by recognizing family members to personalize experiences,” she said.
Robots are gaining the most traction in areas of interaction that don’t require any sort of emotional bond, especially in the service industry.
Steve Cousins, a former Xerox PARC lab head, is now the CEO of Savioke, a company that makes personal robots for the service industry.
The SaviOne by Savioke was recently being tested in the Aloft in Cupertino, where it provides simple room services like bringing guests towels.
Across the bay at Mercy Medical Center in Merced, 5-foot-tall Dr. Bot rolls from the room of one suspected stroke patient to another.
The teleconferencing robot helps physicians diagnose patients 24-hours a day in real time, regardless of their location. Because the center has no full-time neurologist on staff, Dr. Bot plays a lifesaving role.
In Pengheng Space Capsules Hotel in Shenzhen, China, robot front-desk staff and doormen check guests in and carry their luggage. Guests order drinks via tablets, use the robot-staffed restroom and sleep in high-tech capsules. The low staff cost makes it possible for a night’s stay to cost just about $11.
At this robot restaurant in Kunshan, China, machines do most of the work. They cook and serve up noodles, soups and dishes to customers. With over 20 robots working tirelessly, meals are affordably kept under $10.
And a day before Cyber Monday this year, Amazon unveiled its army of 15,000 warehouse robots that pick up and deliver tall warehouse racks of goods to employees who can now fulfill orders faster.
“Warehouse robots mean we are no longer constrained by human performance needing space for movement and ease of access,” said Professor SK Gupta, founder and director of the Maryland Robotics Center.
Gupta expects some functional robots to start showing up in people’s homes next year — things like this snow shoveling, lawn-mowing robot — but he doesn’t expect robots that cook or make us coffee to make a splash soon.
“For tech to become popular, it has to be cheap and exist for a certain amount of time,” he said. “Other than virtual-presence robots that allow us to communicate with others remotely, most personal robotic technology is not mature enough yet.”
Editors’ note: At the 2015 Consumer Electronic Show, The Cooki from Sereneti Kitchen showed how a robot could help the “cooking-impaired to enjoy a meal made from fresh ingredients,” as Gizmag described it. It uses a robotic arm, a tray to hold a variety of ingredients and a smartphone app that helps you combine food you have with a good recipe.
Professor Elizabeth Croft, director of Collaborative Advanced Robotics and Intelligent Systems (CARIS) Laboratory at the University of British Columbia and recently named one of Canada’s Most Powerful Women, agreed that the take-up curve for personal robots was unlikely to rise sharply in the 2015.
Prices are becoming more palatable to consumers, particularly for programmable hobby robots such as Jimmy or HR-OS1 Humanoid Endoskeleton, both powered by Intel Edison technology. What used to cost tens of thousands of dollars now can be purchased for a few thousand.
But many believe the personal robotics industry still needs to find ways to make robots smarter about their owners and environment. This will require better, responsive computer vision and algorithms that are multifunctional, reliable and safe.
“In computing, a turning point was when we began using word processors and creating online spreadsheets,” said CARIS’s Croft. “We’ll never create another spreadsheet by hand.”
With personal robotics, that turning point may hit many people’s lives via autonomous cars, which are attracting more attention each year.
“A word-processed document won’t kill you, but an automatic car could,” said Croft.
More reason to give robots impeccable vision and the ability to respond quickly so they can keep their owners safe.