Let’s Bring Rosie Home: 5 Challenges We Need to Solve for Home Robots

January 16, 2016
John Quinn

Science fiction authors love the robot sidekick. R2-D2, Commander Data, and KITT—just to name a few—defined “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” and “Knight Rider,” respectively, just as much as their human actors. While science has brought us many of the inventions dreamed of in sci-fi shows, one major human activity has remained low tech and a huge source of frustration: household chores. Why can’t we have more robots helping us with our domestic tasks? That’s a question that many roboticists and investors (myself included) have long been asking ourselves. Recently, we’ve seen some promising developments in the home robotics space, including Jibo’s successful financing and SoftBank’s introduction of Pepper. Still, a capable, affordable robotic helper—like Rosie, the robot maid from “The Jetsons”—remains a big technical and commercial challenge. Should robot makers focus on designs that are extensions of our smartphones (as Jibo seems to be doing), or do we need a clean-sheet approach towards building these elusive bots?

But before wondering when we’ll have home robots, it might be fair to ask: Do we even need them? Consider what you can already do just by tapping on your phone, thanks to a host of on-demand service startups. Instacart brings home the groceries; Handy and Super send professionals to fix or clean your home; Pager brings primary care, while HomeTeam does elderly care. (Disclosure: my company, Lux Capital, is an investor in Super, Pager, and HomeTeam.) So, again, why do we need robots to perform these services when humans seem to be doing them just fine? I don’t think anyone has a compelling answer to that question today, and home robots will probably evolve and transform themselves over and over until they find their way into our homes. Indeed, it took decades of automobiles until the Model T was born. The Apple IIs and PC clones of the early 1980s had difficulty justifying their lofty price tags to anyone who wasn’t wealthy, or a programmer. We need to expect the same from our first home bots.

So it might be helpful to examine what problems engineers need to crack before they can attempt to build something like Rosie the robot. Below I discuss five areas that I believe need significant advances if we want to move the whole home robot field forward.

1. We Need Machine-Human Interfaces

Siri and Amazon’s Alexa demonstrate how far speech recognition and natural language processing have come. Unfortunately, they are no more than a human-machine interface, designed to displace the keyboard and mouse. What we need is a machine-human interface. Where is the distinction? It starts with understanding people, rather than aggregating data and using statistical patterns to make inferences. It can understand our moods and emotional contexts, as an artificial intelligence would. Humans do not interact with one another through a series of commands (well, maybe some do); they establish a connection, and once a computer can take on that role, then we have a true machine-human interface. Scientists are starting to tackle this by applying concepts used in programming toward establishing rules for robot-human conversations, but we’ll need much more if we want to have engaging AI assistants like the one in the movie “Her.” ​

2. Cheap Sensors Need to Get Cheaper

Driverless cars will generate hard cash for their operators, so forking over thousands for an array of lidar, radar, ultrasound, and cameras is a no-brainer. Home robots, however, may need to fit the ever-discretionary consumer budget. The array of sensors the robot would need to properly perceive its environment could render it cost prohibitive unless the sensors cost pennies as they do in mobile phones. MEMS technology dramatically lowered the cost of inertial sensors, which previously cost thousands of dollars and were relegated to aircraft and spacecraft. Can computer vision applied to an array of cheap cameras and infrared sensors provide adequate sensing capability? And can we expect lidar to come down in price, or do we need a whole new sensing technology? A startup called Dual Aperture has added a second aperture for infrared hence creating the ability to infer short distances. Meanwhile, DARPA is funding the research on chip-based lidar, and Quanergy expects to launch a solid-state optical phased array, thereby eliminating the mechanical components that raise the cost of lidar. We expect engineers to find creative ways to reduce the cost of existing sensing technology, while obviating others altogether, and hopefully making them as cheap as sensors in our phones today.

To read the rest of this article, published in IEEE Spectrum, please click here.