Robots for the home are difficult sci-fi dreams. Even when they make breakfast.

Robots for the home are difficult sci-fi dreams. Even when they make breakfast.

People say, “we were promised flying cars,” and “where are all the household robots we were promised?” The truth is, it’s really difficult to make a household robot. Our homes are more or less similar to the homes of 60 or 70 years ago, with better insulation and heating and cooling, generally. There are no cubby holes in the walls for floor cleaning robots to come out of and return to. There are no robot maids. What gives?

Photo: EASE – difficulty with the dishwasher, and hard to grasp the milk

Why there aren’t household robots

  1. The two easiest tasks have been done.
  2. Everything after this is very hard.

Floorcleaning, broken down into vacuuming and mopping, has been conquered to a large degree. Whether through LIDAR, cameras, or just the act of bumping into things to cover and re-cover ground until the job is complete.

After that, things get hard. The next step people think of is meal preparation. There are robots that can make pizza. There are robots that can prepare whole meals. There are even automated restaurants.

The problems with all of these is that they rely on ingredients being in the same place. When something isn’t present, it falls apart. A good example of this is the McDonald’s soft-serve machine, that is routinely broken.

The latest IEEE Spectrum has an article on a paper about PR2, a robot that attempts to change this. The robot moves upright more or less like a human, and is designed to use human-accessible cupboards and pantries rather than trying to arrange everything around the robot’s capabilities.

PR2 robot was tasked with first setting a table for a simple breakfast and then cleaning up afterwards in order to “investigate and evaluate the scalability and the robustness aspects of mobile manipulation.”

PR2’s job here is to prepare breakfast by bringing a bowl, a spoon, a cup, a milk box, and a box of cereal to a dining table. After breakfast, the PR2 then has to place washable objects into the dishwasher, put the cereal box back into its storage location, toss the milk box into the trash. The objects vary in shape and appearance, and the robot is only given symbolic descriptions of object locations (in the fridge, on the counter).

It took PR2 more than 90 minutes to complete the task. This is okay; honestly, I’m impressed that it can complete it at all.

Everyone expects the future to happen all at once. The truth is, advancements are incremental and then much later become mainstream.

Video calls were demonstrated 60 years ago. Skype calling and FaceTime only become commonplace in the 2000s and 2010s. Perhaps PR2 will be ready in a few decades to make the sci-fi of the 1930s a reality.

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