When Will My Robotic Housekeeper Be Ready?

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New robots seem to arrive nearly every month, but it always seems like there’s something missing. From the new startup crowdfunded “Jibo” that bends and twists like a Siri-voiced, Wi-Fi-networked, robo-Smurf, to Japan’s “Pepper” that supposedly reads human emotions, according to its makers, to Honda’s running, jumping, signing “Asimo,” each one is good at performing a few simple tasks.

But a multi-function household robot that cooks, cleans, does the laundry, takes phone calls and waters the plants (anyone remember the cartoon Jetsons’ Rosie?) is still out of reach, experts say.

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“It’s not like there will be nothing and then in 20 years there will be a Rosie or a HERB in the home,” says Siddhartha Srinivasa, associate professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University who is developing the Home Exploring Robotic Butler (HERB).

“The technologies we are creating with HERB will be in homes, offices and workplaces a long time before you have a robot like Rosie,” he said. “You will have smarter homes, appliances and cars that will set the groundwork for a general purpose robot. It will be a gradual transition and will be taking steps along the way.”

Last year, HERB opened an Oreo cookie without crushing it; this year, it starred in a play on the CMU campus. But there are still big obstacles to building automated robots that can perform multiple tasks.

“The hardware is truly capable,” Srinivasa said. “What’s missing are the algorithms and smarts.”

The other problem is that the human environment, especially the home, is cluttered and messy. Existing robots do well on factory floors, for example, where objects are clearly defined, are placed in precise locations and can be moved easily.

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“Just pulling a book out of a bookshelf” is difficult, Srinivasa said. “We push, pull, pickup, sweep. We use physics for our benefit. We have to figure out how to build robots to deal with that and developing the algorithms.”

Developing arms that can hold an object without crushing or letting it go is also a big engineering challenge, according to Don Norman, director of the DesignLab at UC San Diego and author of The Design of Future Things.