As someone that grew up watching the Jetsons, Star Wars, Star Trek, and countless other shows that prominently featured humanoid robots, I’ve been waiting patiently for a robot of my own. The Roomba, which launched more than a decade ago in 2002, was supposed to be a sign that household robots would become ubiquitous.
But while the Roomba achieved some notoriety, selling more than 10 million units worldwide, and while robotics technology has advanced considerably, we still await the arrival of multi-task domesticated robots.
Robots have certainly expanded their presence and their utility in industrial settings. Yet household robots have for the most part been limited to relatively simple, single-function machines designed to accomplish specific tasks: one that vacuums; one that washes floors; one that cleans kitty litter; and so on.
TAKING ON THE CHALLENGE
Although researchers, scientists, and inventors are making progress in the development of affordable, versatile, multi-task robots for home use, these robots have not yet arrived in the marketplace.
A number of organizations and companies are tackling the challenges of developing robots that can perform multiple household chores. In Japan, for example, i-RooBO Network Forum, a consortium of 300 Japanese businesses formed in 2014, has announced that it is working on developing 100 kinds of robots to assist in daily chores and other tasks by 2020.
In the UK, James Dyson, founder of the Dyson company, in 2014 announced the creation in London of a £5 million robotics center that will bring together British engineers and Japanese scientists in the attempt to create a multi-purpose household android.
Others tackling the challenge of creating and/ or improving chore-performing home robots include iRobot, maker of the Roomba, and Google, which acquired seven robotics startups in 2013.
3 KEY FINDINGS
- Researchers and scientists continue to make technological advances that make multi-task domestic robots more viable.
- Challenges that must still be met before launching home robots into consumer markets include improving robots’ senses, dexterity, mobility and navigation, and intelligence.
- Cost, weight, and energy efficiency may also serve as significant obstacles to the proliferation of domestic robots.
An array of social, demographic, and economic forces are driving the research and development of better, more versatile robots for home use. They include:
- Time pressure. With consumers feeling that time is scarce, robots would provide a highly valued service by taking over mundane household chores—doing laundry, washing dishes or loading dishes in the dishwasher, scrubbing tubs and toilets, cleaning floors and windows, straightening up, unloading groceries, shoveling snow, and the like. Consumer research has shown, for example, that people spend more time doing laundry than any other household task.
- Quality of life. An ICM poll in 2011 found that 82% of consumers said they would use any product that increased their free time at home. Freeing up time spent doing necessary but repetitive (and for most people boring) household chores by relegating them to robots would allow consumers to devote more time to more enjoyable activities—or to more career work.
- Aging. The UN estimates that the number of people over age 65 will jump 181% worldwide between 2010 and 2050. The growing number of consumers who want to age in place (i.e., to remain in their homes rather than move to long-term care facilities) will heighten demand not only for healthcare and personal-care robots (which are beyond the scope of this brief), but also for robots that can handle chores that aging consumers find increasingly difficult to manage on their own.
3 POSSIBLE OUTCOMES: WHAT’S COMING AROUND THE CORNER
The transformation of the auto industry is likely to lead to any or all of the following outcomes:
- New competitors. Traditional leaders in the auto industry will face new competition, not only from an increasingly global auto industry, but from new players as well. The exponentially growing importance of digital, for example, will bring in new competitors from outside the industry who are well-versed in digital technologies. Disruptive technologies will allow smaller companies and non-automotive companies to leapfrog ahead of established automotive leaders whose competence lies in more traditional technologies.
- Talent shift. Digital and software-driven innovation may begin to dominate automotive research and engineering. As a result, talent may increasingly be centered in high-tech hubs— such places as Silicon Valley, Bangalore, and Tel Aviv. The auto industry may find it challenging to attract the talent needed to stay on top of digitally driven innovation.
- Safer and more efficient travel. As cars and roadways become intelligent and interactive, safety and the efficient use of roadways should both improve. V2V and V2I communication will optimize traffic flow, easing congestion and reducing commute times. And these communication systems, coupled with improved crash-avoidance technologies, should result in safer rides for all travelers.
3 BUSINESS IMPLICATIONS
- Companies working in adjacent spaces should monitor robotics progress carefully, even if they have no plans to enter the field or make direct use of robots. These technological developments will involve advances in such scientific arenas as sensors, machine learning, and information technology—which will have potential to be applied in adjacent areas of technology.
- When the robot industry masters the technological challenges and establishes a market for home robots, it will also create ancillary markets—for example, for maintenance, service, monitoring, and repair of robots. A market may also open up for services that “robot-proof” homes—making them safe environments in which robots can operate without damaging themselves or other property (just as child-proofing makes homes safe for children).
- If the pricing of robots comes down very gradually, making them affordable only to the wealthiest consumers, a leasing or rental model may provide a useful interim step that paves the way for eventual sales as prices continue to come down. Renting a robot maid, for example, could be cheaper than or at least cost-competitive with hiring a human housecleaning crew. Offering robots to rent or lease could whet the consumer appetite to own robots as they become more affordable.