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Ageing populations, rising healthcare costs, an increasing number of people who refuse to retire – and the robot vacuum cleaner that might help.

Other companies have come out with home robots that are expensive, toys or both. But iRobot has sold more than 2m Roomba robot vacuum cleaners for about $200 each.

And more than 500 iRobot PackBots are used by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan for tasks such as searching abandoned buildings and disarming explosive devices.

If it seems an unlikely mix, iRobot chief executive Colin Angle says the company builds robots to tackle “dull, dirty or dangerous missions”. And he told the recent Future in Review conference, robots now have the potential to help the elderly stay in their own homes for longer.

Angle points out the pressure that health systems are under with the current elderly population.

“Today’s assisted living facilities are inadequate to deal with the number of people we have now; they are chronically understaffed. The average age of nurses is 50. And things are getting worse. How are we going to meet this challenge when the number of people over the age of 65 doubles in the next 10 to 15 years? And besides, those people don’t actually want to go into nursing homes anyway.”

While robots to help around the home are not the entire answer, Angle works out that “if we can help even a small percentage of elderly people live independently for just one extra year, that creates an opportunity worth tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars”.

He does not think robot assistance would help those with Alzheimers or mental handicaps, at least in the short term, but he does expect that we will start to see robots as an adjunct to more traditional care.

“A cadre of robots that can care for the home and the individual, making sure that the person was looked in on by a trained professional on a regular basis, and that they are taking the medications that will keep them relatively stable – in the near term that could work,” he predicts.

And that could free up health professionals, making it more likely that a doctor will be available when they are needed.

Angle also suggests using robot “avatars” to make it easier for nurses, doctors and friends to stay in touch with the elderly.

“I could go to my computer,” he explains “and drive the robot around; project myself physically into the robot so I hear what it hears and see what it sees.”

After vacuuming and mopping, iRobot is working on robots for other tasks around the home, from washing windows and scrubbing the shower to mowing the lawn and folding laundry.

“That’s one I’d love, although it’s a little challenging as it involves a lot of manipulation,” comments Angle.

“Broadly speaking, we’re looking at the tasks you need to take on to make your home chaos-free.”

Robots are not limited to doing things the same way humans do; Roomba does not look like a standard vacuum cleaner or follow what looks to human eyes like a logical route around the room, and Scooba (iRobot’s new floor-washing robot) does not work like a mop. Angle claims they are more efficient and get the floor cleaner than doing it by hand.

“It’s a highly effective superior process. The fact that it’s a robot is separate.”

In the long run he expects people to have five or 10 robots in the home; several small, inexpensive single-purpose robots for specific tasks and one larger robot that they communicate with to direct the other robots, or as an interface to other technology in the home.

Angle says the robot has to be something you can relate to, but not something that tries (and fails) to look human: “You have to give people some hooks; they’re looking for elements that are recognisable in the robot, they want a head to talk to. But it doesn’t necessarily have to look like a human head; in fact it’s better to be abstract than close to human.”

Special purpose robots can climb stairs, pick things up and move around more easily. The only task you need a humanoid robot for is, he says, entertainment.

Many Roomba owners already relate to their robot more than Angle expected. “We went to great lengths not to make it cute because we were terrified people would treat it as a toy and not take it seriously as a vacuum cleaner. And yet there is this enormous personification.”

If they see the Roomba get stuck because of the furniture in the room, people will rearrange it to help. Often, they want a faulty unit repaired rather than replaced because, they say, “it’s going to have a different personality”. Some draw on eyes or even dress up the Roomba.

These attitudes could make robots more acceptable than the health monitoring technologies that companies such as Intel are investigating, which can seem intrusive: “I have a problem with turning all of my living space into a heavily sensored environment because I feel privacy is an important aspect of the human condition,” Angle comments. “I don’t relish the moment when my every movement is going to be monitored by a webcam.

“With robots, when they see you, you can see them; if the robot needs to find you, to ask you something, they can announce their presence. I hope we can steer clear of the 1984 tendency as long as possible.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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