Advance of the robots

Herb, a butler for the home

When Isaac Asimov, the Russian-American science fiction writer, first published his vision of a benign future of coexistence between humans and robots in the 1942 short story “Runaround”, the rules were clear.

Set in the far away intergalactic year of 2015, Asimov’s robots existed solely to serve the good of their masters. Never could a machine allow a human to come to harm, and a robot always had to obey its master’s orders (unless this contradicted the former).

With 2015 just two years away, the technology of helpful robots may not have developed in quite the way that the writer envisaged but a rapidly growing industry is helping to bring such fantasies closer to reality.

There are now robotic devices to clean floors, wash windows and scrub gutters, with other more advanced designs, such as robotic helpers for the elderly, coming closer to commercial launches.

The International Federation of Robotics forecasts that, between 2012 and 2015, 15.6m service robots for personal use will be sold, with sales of robots handling domestic tasks reaching 11m units in this period – and hitting $4.8bn.

Bill Gates expects that the rise of the home robot will be the next disruptive technology, consigning the human maid, and even the hand-pushed vacuum cleaner, to history.

“As these devices become affordable to consumers,” the Microsoft founder has said, “they could have just as profound an impact on the way we work, communicate, learn and entertain ourselves as the PC has had in the past 30 years.”

For people wanting an electronic domestic helper, there is a growing number gadgets on offer.

The Roomba automated vacuum cleaner by iRobot, a US company that sells automated domestic appliances alongside military and medical hardware, was first released in 2002 and has since gone through various versions to become the company’s flagship product. Disc-shaped, the Roomba 790 (£699) scuttles around the home, cleaning from corner to corner and navigating around any clutter.

The RoboCop, by Indian company Milagrow Human Tech, does a similar job, cleaning your home at a pre-scheduled time and returning to its storage unit once the job is done. In India, where use of domestic help is high, the RoboCop and Milagrow’s other products, including a window cleaning robot, are being marketed as cost-efficient alternatives to potentially troublesome humans. A robot, unlike a human, will never arrive late or do a half-hearted job.

Similar in design and concept to the vacuum robots is the E.ziclean Windoro window washer, sold by E.zicom for €499, which uses magnetic modules to clamp either side of a pane of glass and can clean 15 sq metres in a single charge.

Other tasks with which robots can help include weight loss – the Autom personal coach shouts out dietary instructions to its owner – and oversleeping, with the Clocky robot alarm clock jumping around your room until you catch it, reducing the possibility of snoozing through.

Kitchen appliances that can prepare and cook difficult dishes are another fast-growing area of technology.

The Thermomix kitchen blen­der can chop, blend, steam, knead dough and even peel garlic. Costing about £900, it does not come cheap, but has acquired a following of people who claim it transforms the ability of the time-strapped to prepare elaborate, healthy meals. Heston Blumenthal, the celebrity UK chef, uses the Thermomix in his FatDuck restaurant.

The Grillbot, $99.95

There are also robotic solutions when it comes to cleaning up after cooking. The Grillbot, available from August and set to retail at less than $100, is a battery-rechargeable automated barbecue cleaner developed by a former real estate salesman who had become fed up with scrubbing the inside of his grill. The user simply sets a timer and leaves the device to scrub away.

With the potential to outgun all of these simple kitchen aids is Herb (the Home Exploring Robot Butler), a full-service home butler under development by Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute. Equipped with two arms and a head-like box housing cameras and sensors, Herb even speaks like a butler should, declaring in a Jeeves-like English accent, “I was designed to help people with household duties. One day I will help humans.”

But Herb has recently been helping humans in his lab in a rather more limited, if entertaining fashion – proving that he is able to separate Oreo cookies without breaking either part of the biscuit.

Elsewhere, the PR2 Kitchen Robot, developed by Willow Garage, has been put to work by various research institutes to complete kitchen tasks, including serving up pancakes.

And last year, Toyota unveiled its 70lb Human Support Robot, which uses a telescopic body to lift things from the floor or pick up objects from shelves – with the potential use of helping the elderly and disabled. The device has a tablet computer for a head, allowing carers to communicate remotely, via Skype, with the person the machine is caring for.

It is here that developers and scientists begin to approach the territory where Asimov’s “rules of robotics”, grounded in the need for robots to protect human interests, could begin to apply. While it is hard to imagine a rogue vacuum cleaner posing any significant moral quandaries, the closer devices come to resemble humans, the stranger our relationships with them will become.

The Bina 48 human robot, developed by the Terasem movement, an organisation promoting the use of nanotechnology to extend human life, is a robotic head and shoulders designed to test how accurately a real person’s personality can be transposed into a machine. Modelled after Bina Aspen, a real person who gave hours of interviews about her life, the robot cannot only engage in realistic conversation, frown and smile, but also recall emotional experiences about her past.

With Bina’s creators arguing that such robots will eventually be able to provide humans with emotional companions, the idea of being impressed by the ability of robots to clean floors may become as quaintly outdated as early 20th-century wonderment at the motor car.

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