With the mass introduction of smart speakers, smart doorbells, smart fridges and even smart toilets there is a world of possibilities when it comes to innovating our homes. Whilst smart speakers have come close to providing human like assistance, they still lack the physical attributes of robotic assistants we have seen in films. Robots are almost second nature in factories and production lines but when will they become widespread in our homes?
iRobot is one of the leading companies in home robotics and you may be familiar with its Roomba model, the autonomous vacuum cleaner. From 1990 they have tried to navigate through various business plans to build something both technologically advanced and commercially desirable.
When they first started, they encountered many issues which are still yet to be perfected by the robotics industry, including: spatial navigation, voice recognition and machine vision. Back then they were one of few companies investigating these components which now form the basis of a rich ecosystem of technologies, the most important being Artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things.
If so many bright minds and big companies are devoted to perfecting these building blocks of robotics, why haven’t we all got a robot in our homes?
“Getting a robot to work successfully still means getting just the right mix of mechanical, electrical, and software engineering, connectivity, and data science”Colin Angle: Chairman, CEO and Founder of iRobot
After many failed business models, they built Roomba, an autonomous vacuum cleaner which can scan a room, identify objects and clean the floor without any human interference. It can even remember dirty places that need extra attention and it can plug itself into its charging station and go back to where it left off when the battery is recharged.
However, consumers are often hesitant to believe that Roomba can do what it says on the tin. This is what many robotics companies face. Even their most successful products are doubted by the average consumer.
Service and Social Robots
When talking about home robotics, people tend to group robots into 2 different fields, Service robots and Social robots. Whilst Service robots will eventually assume household tasks such as cooking and serving meals, Social robots, will provide owners with some level of empathetic interaction to offer companionship. Virtual assistants have already built a strong presence in the smart home market but lack the mobility to provide richer assistance. This presents many challenges for its design and engineering, spatial awareness, voice and facial recognition, emotional intelligence, machine vision and connectivity.
For a robot to begin to perform tasks it must understand its environment. As human we all have a concept of how the inside of our house differs from the outside, the layout of our furniture and devices, the weight and shapes of objects and how we should interact with them. If robots want to better interact with people, they need to share this common understanding of how the environment works to perform tasks successfully. Providing Robots with technologies which can facilitate obstacle avoidance and the ability to distinguish one room from another is crucial when building domestic robots.
With IoT connected sensors Robots can collect a huge about of data in order to help guide its behaviour. The main objective of these sensors is to allow the robot to move freely around its environment much like the perception and prediction systems do in an autonomous vehicle. Thanks to IoT, these sensors can be connected to the home network to show remote real time information to the users. Facial recognition and Natural language processing help robots understand speech and emotion to better interact with the people around it.
For many having a robot which can move, speak and understand is enough. However, some companies are going even further to give robots a fuller sensory experience. These sensors allow robots to see through walls, detect dangerous gas detection, infrared vision, gyroscopes and thermal vision. AI and machine learning tools then help aggregate and extract meaning from the rich sensor information. This will help power the robot’s decision-making capabilities.
Whist many of these individual technologies are extremely advanced to help robots navigate and understand its environment, it is still very difficult to explain those concepts we are assume are fact, such as that a bedroom is a place where humans sleep and that you cannot have a bath in the kitchen sink.
What seems clear is we can teach a robot to perform individual tasks to a high level of accuracy. They can successfully ‘Play Rolling in the deep by Adele’ or ‘Clean the floor’, such tasks which are one-directional and command-based. However, performing tasks which require a multi-level understanding prove trickier. The development of natural language processing is crucial in this area to give the robot a better sense of what we want and how we want it and Artificial intelligence will help these robots navigate through unexpected scenarios and learn how to react accordingly. As these technologies evolve, so will the level of robots’ physical interaction with the real world, making it a generalist and not just a one-task specialist.
The Internet of Things and Robotics are coming together to create the Internet of Robotic Things, a concept where intelligent devices (Robots) can monitor their environment and report back with live data. This is particularly important for the development of home care robots so that they can feed information to a central care system in case of emergencies. Robots can then go one step further than its IoT connected sensors and act. The combination of these two technologies will provide a rich ecosystem for connected assistance.
Pricing, availability and consumer awareness
There are many challenges that home robotics must overcome, not only on a technological level but in terms of the price, availability and consumer perception of ‘Robots’. Many consumers doubt the capabilities of robotics and do no trust these strangers in our homes. Companies need to find a way to replicate the acceptance and trust of virtual assistant and smart speakers for physical multi-function robots.