Robot Killer App
Apr 29, 2013

In an earlier post I asked which topics you prefer me to blog about. I was surprised that the topic of robots wasn’t popular. I say that because interest in anything is usually based on how much we expect it to influence our own lives. And I can’t imagine anything that will change all of our lives as much as the coming Robot Age. We are the last generation that will remember life before robots. In about five years, shit is gonna get real.

So how will the first big push into residential robotics happen? If you break your daily chores into categories, which of those categories do you see as the first killer apps for robots?

We already have robots that vacuum carpets. But armless robots that scoot along the carpet don’t impress me. I’m wondering when I’ll buy the first robot that can move through my home, manipulate things with its arms, and communicate by voice.

The other day, I was clearing the dinner table and putting dishes in the dishwasher. It occurred to me that technology has already reached the point at which a robot could clean your kitchen and dining table after a meal. A robot could collect plates, scrape the debris into the trash, and load a dishwasher. If you saw the Youtube video of a robot doing ironing, or pouring a glass of water, you know why I think the technology is already here.

I could also imagine a robot walking the family dog when everyone else is working or in school. You’d need the robot to train the dog with treats, just as a human would. But that seems doable. And the robot would need to have a DVR function in the cloud to record whatever is happening and discourage pranksters and dog thieves. Perhaps you, as the dog owner, could watch the entire walk on your smartphone or computer at work. You could even talk to passersby through the robot, just so they know they are being watched and video-recorded.

I also have a vision of a Transformers-like robot designed specifically for childcare. At night it turns into a bassinet with video feeds to the parents. If the baby cries, the parents can have the robot bring the baby to their room, or try to soothe it by rocking. When it’s time for a walk, the bassinet becomes a self-moving baby carriage. For meals, the robot morphs into a high stool. If the smoke detectors in the house go off, the robot carries the baby to safety automatically. And I would think it could sniff out a diaper problem and alert parents. A robot won’t replace adults for childcare anytime soon, but I can see childcare getting a lot easier with a robot helper. In time, the robot can even teach the kid language skills.

I think it will be a while before robots can cook gourmet meals or clean your bathroom just right. But I’ll bet we’ll have commercial robots that can clear a dinner table, take the dishes to the dishwasher, do laundry, and help with childcare in five years. And I think the price tag will be around $5,000, with a monthly maintenance plan of $100.

The first company that cracks the residential robot market has a good chance of becoming the most important company on earth. The robot revolution will make the industrial revolution look like practice swings.

By the way, if there are any college robotics majors looking for a fun project, I have one for you. I need a small robot that can find and pick up tennis balls from anywhere on the court and throw them in a hopper (a basket) on its back.

When a human takes a tennis lesson, or uses a ball machine to practice, the unpleasant part of the process is picking up the two hundred balls that are left all over the court. A tennis teacher could save ten minutes of tedium from every hour-long lesson.

I would think the technology for a tennis ball robot is already here. Let me know if someone already built one.

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Apr 29, 2013
I hate going to the barber. I don't have much hair left, so it's not like anything artistic can be done up there anyway. I always ask for the basic "trim" -- and why couldn't a home robot do that? I'm not talking about some 6 foot tall giant that takes up a lot of bathroom space. I'm thinking more of a smart "Flowbee" with a sophisticated vision system.

I also can't wait for self-driving cars so they can drive themselves to the car wash. Some special software may have to be written so that the car's AI won't get too bored at the car wash. Maybe a virtual rack of greeting cards could be projected into its memory, or the AI could virtually "eat" a small $5 bag of trailmix while it pretends to look at text messages.

Or how about a mobile toilet? Why should one entire room of your home be devoted to a fixed-in-place toilet when you could have a toi-toi-valet follow you around the house? Just a snap of the fingers and it would offer you a warmed porcelain seat. Hi-tech vacuum bagging could quickly complete the transaction. If guests were in the room, one of those new LED-invisibility shields could be beamed up around you.

Apr 29, 2013
[Your view only makes sense if you believe we are waiting for technological discoveries (we aren't) or you think the price of a commercial household robot would be prohibitive for the wealthy (they won't). ]

Well we're obviously waiting for SOMETHING because your robot slave isnt here yet. The roomba is a start but make no mistake, thats all it is-a start. I dont doubt that there will be advances in robotics in the next five years and quite possibly more robotlike appliances entering the marketplace, but lets not get carried away. My view-and you would seem to have missed this-is that Ive heard it all before so excuse me if I dont hold my breath waiting for robots to be doing all the things you mention.
Apr 29, 2013
So, I think the mistake in thinking about the future of robotics is picturing them moving about, grabbing things etc. The future of robotics (IMHO) is more about automation and optimization of existing structures, appliances, etc. So, for your tennis robot example, less about a robot scurrying around and more about slight gutters around the court, or a slight slope so that balls roll to a receiving area to be channeled back to your ball machine or wherever (like batting cages or even a bowling alley).
Apr 29, 2013
Surely the ball firing machine should pick up its own balls - why have 2 robots on court?
The problem can be cured by building a practice court with a slight slope to one corner, so all the balls will roll to one place - no robots needed.

[I'm imagining the ball machine and the ball fetcher operating at the same time, so the court is being cleaned as you go. But combining the two devices could work too. -- Scott]
Apr 29, 2013
A tennis ball robot would be a piece of cake: built like a Roomba, with a camera in front that can distinguish the greenish-yellow color and round shape of a tennis ball from other surroundings, and a scooping mechanism to capture it. The size might be a bit of an issue because it would have to hold all the balls. Maybe instead of picking them up, it would be able to hone in on a signal from a ball basket sitting off in the corner, and lob a perfect shot from wherever it is. Given that you know the distance, putting the exact amount of force and angle to hit the basket every time is just math; and if it missed, well, that's just one more ball to pick up. It would look cool, too.
-4 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 29, 2013
This is never going to happen. I just can't see it ever being technologically possible for a robot to appropriately imitate human behavior at a cost that most consumers could afford.

I also voted against the robot topics for specifically that reason.

[Well, the robot brains would be no more costly than your Smartphone. So let's say $600 for the robot brain hardware. The software is being developed open source as we speak, so that will be nearly free. The rest is just electric motors, gears, and parts you can print in your 3D printer. I'd say a full walking, talking robot would cost $2,000 and have an adoption rate similar to large television sets, meaning rich people adopt them first. -- Scott]
Apr 29, 2013
I was one of the folks who told you not to blog about this and the big reason I did was because every time you do I have the urge to repeat objections I have made in the past to your thinking, so here goes: folks have been telling me all my life this sort of thing was just around the corner and it hasnt happened. Sure weve had some progress, but to hear folks tell it back in the 80s I should have had my robot slave about ten years ago. In fact, Im surprised at you for beleiving the hype surrounding where robotics is going to be in five years. Arent you supposed to be cynical? Havent folks been telling you the same sort of thing your whole life?

[Your view only makes sense if you believe we are waiting for technological discoveries (we aren't) or you think the price of a commercial household robot would be prohibitive for the wealthy (they won't). We're already in the commercialization phase of the Robot Age. By contrast, flying cars probably need new lighter fuel sources and other discoveries to become feasible. Robot technology is already mature and working. -- Scott]
+19 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 29, 2013
...So you decided to do a blog specifically about what we told you not to blog about. Suppose I should have seen it coming.
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