The future is automated

Domestic robots are set to become the multifunctional, interconnected smart helpers we've long been waiting for.

(Photo: Antonio M. Rosario)

In the 1960s, The Jetsons introduced TV viewers to the idea of a home robot in the form of Rosey, a humanoid machine dressed in a French maid’s outfit. The robot didn’t just cook and clean; she was a matronly figure who dispensed acerbic advice. When patriarch George Jetson declined sugar in his coffee because he was trying to stay trim, Rosey quipped, “But Mr. J, you’re always in shape … pear-shape!”

Half a century later, we’re well on the way to having our own Roseys. Robots are creeping into our homes, except they (mostly) don’t look like us — they’re smaller and shaped like appliances. But while they don’t yet have personalities, they’re getting increasingly intelligent.

Leading the way is iRobot Corp. Named after the Isaac Asimov novel, the Boston-area company was started in 1990 by a trio of Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates on a mission to make robots practical and affordable. The company at first floundered, but in 1998 it caught a big break when it landed a Pentagon research grant. That funding led to the development of the Packbot, a remote-controlled machine that can explore caves and disarm bombs. To date, more than 2,000 have been deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But iRobot’s founders always had the consumer market in mind. In 2002, they translated their military experience into the Roomba, the disc-shaped vacuum that autonomously cleans the floors and then recharges itself. What at first seemed like a novelty became a perennially popular Christmas gift, with five million Roombas sold to date. IRobot’s stock has more than tripled in the past two years.

Co-founder and CEO Colin Angle attributes the success of Roomba — the first home robot to hit it big — to a shift in the public’s expectations of a robot’s appearance and function. When the company presented the machine to focus groups before launch and asked people whether they thought it was a robot, they emphatically disagreed. After all, Roomba looked nothing like Rosey or Lt.-Cmdr. Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation says Angle. “[But] the media has played a huge role in … describing that small disc-like object as an alternate form of what a robot could be.”

Now, technology and consumer expectations are starting to align. At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, iRobot showed off Ava, a thin, upright concept robot that moves around on a wheeled base. Ava’s head, however, is a tablet computer that allows the user to input controls or engage in teleconferencing. Such a butler robot would have a degree of autonomy, controlling and giving orders to other household machines. Ava could, for example, decide that the floors need cleaning and order the Roomba into action. “The more we work with it, the more we find it a compelling strategy for how this is going to play out,” Angle says.

IRobot’s vision is consistent with that of researchers at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, a renowned centre in the field. Jim Osborn, executive director of the university’s Quality of Life Technology Center, says robots are just like any other new technology: they’re arriving in ways not generally expected.

In the 1980s, popular fiction envisioned artificial intelligence taking the form of thinking and speaking robots, sometimes with sinister motives. Those haven’t materialized, but AI is everywhere, from search engines that know what you’re typing before you do it to automated phone systems that take your pizza order. Osborn says the notion that a machine has to think and move in order to be a robot is out of date. By Carnegie Mellon’s definition, we won’t just have robots in our homes. We’ll be living inside them. “We think a robot has to sense and it has to act, but that doesn’t necessarily involve mechanics,” he says. “An intelligent environment that you live in — to us, that’s a robot, too.”

Over the next decade, household robots will become increasingly multifunctional and interconnected, says Osborn. A vacuum cleaner robot, for example, spends much of the day inactive. Adding tasks for it to do, such as finding the keys you invariably can’t find in the morning , won’t be difficult. “There’s no reason why a robot like that couldn’t cruise around at night and take inventory, so when you wake up in the morning, you don’t ask that question,” Osborn says. “The robot knows.”

The shift is already underway. Also at the CES, electronics maker LG showed off its Home-Bot, a vacuum similar to the Roomba but with two cameras and Wi-Fi. The connectivity and sensors enable remote operation, so users with a smartphone app can check up on their kids or clean the house before guests pop over.

The Home-Bot is part of LG’s ThinQ strategy, which involves adding intelligent functionality to home appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines. “Robotics has always had its own category, but now the lines are blurring,” says LG Canada spokesman Frank Lee. “There’s a level of interaction that we’re already having with devices, and if we can now take advantage of some level of automation or mobility, that’s where the robotic opportunities are.” In LG’s home base of South Korea, the government is offering incentives and direct investment in hopes of becoming a global leader in home robotics, and has set the goal of a robot in every household by 2020.

It sounds ambitious, but only to people still stuck in the Rosey mindset. Jun-Ho Oh, a professor in the department of mechanical engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, says most homes already incorporate robotics. Microsoft’s recently launched Kinect motion video-game system, for example, can also be used to conduct video chats, and it follows users as they move around a room. The latest point-and-shoot cameras, meanwhile, automatically fire their shutters when a smiling subject is detected. “It’s beyond what you can call an automatic camera,” he says. “It might be called a robotic camera.”

The market for service robots, which includes the home robot category, is expected to more than double within the next four years from the roughly $10 billion it was a year ago, according to Dallas-based research firm MarketsandMarkets. More specific revenue projections are hard to make, however, because a full roboticization of the home could span a wide range of applications. IRobot, for one, has expanded to offer a line of Roomba-like robots, including the Scooba floor washer and the Verro swimming-pool cleaner, and domestic robots now account for more than half its revenue. Others are developing window washers, home health monitors and other robotic aids.

“This is the real robotics age,” Oh says. “It’s like Transformers, where everything is a robot. Almost every household already has a robot. In the future, your telephone will be a robot.” The next step is to Rosey-fy those machines.

Players to watch:

WowWee Group
Started by Canadian brothers Richard and Peter Yanofsky, the Hong Kong-based company originally manufactured toys such as Power Rangers. In 2008, it launched Rovio, a turtle-shaped home-monitoring robot.

The Toronto-area company is primarily focused on health and academic markets, but its haptic technology — which replicates the sense of touch through mechanical vibration — is being used in commercial home robots.

The Israeli company attracted attention at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show with its WheeMe massage robot. The toy-car-like device has rubber wheels that massage and sensors that keep it from falling off the patient’s back.

Friendly Robotics
Started in 1995, the New York City-based company makes RoboMow lawn mowers — essentially outdoor versions of vacuum cleaners such as the Roomba.

Ilshim Global
Another outfit that made waves at CES. Its Windoro window-cleaning robot, slated to hit the market this spring, is like a vertical Roomba, except it has two parts that attach to each side of a window through magnets.