I robot: put your feet up, I do chores

Posted by Peter Cochrane on January 17, 2006

The Times, Stuart Miles, 17th January 2006

Coming soon to a dirty room near you, a new generation of helpers

That unreconstructed slob lurking deep down in all of us yearns for some faraway Utopia where we wouldnt have to lift a finger around the house. In a well-adjusted 21st-century relationship, though, this masculine nirvana wont and, of course, shouldnt be forthcoming. Even bachelors dont really have a choice but to do at least some housework unless, of course, they plan to stay bachelors for ever.

A depressing poll conducted by the broadband ISP Bulldog recently found that the average Briton spends the equivalent of three and a half years of his life doing household chores. Thats time that could be spent far, far more fruitfully.

The 21st century might just liberate those precious moments for all of us to enjoy thanks to the ever more confident march of the robot. While they have been around in sci-fi movies for decades, robots will soon begin a friendly invasion of our homes. Why would you want to walk around after a vacuum cleaner if it could walk around on its own? says Professor Peter Cochrane, the UKs first Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Technology.

Why would you want to programme a washing machine if it could program itself? There will come a time when we will employ humans only when they are cheaper than robots.

Already chores such as vacuum cleaning and ironing are heavily serviced by the robotics industry. LG, iRobot, and Electrolux all make self-autonomous vacuum cleaners that, given only a power supply, will then clean your carpets until you tell them to stop.

These robots arent what you might hope for, looks-wise, if youve been raised on Star Wars and Buck Rogers: they arent walking, talking humanoids, but instead small disc-shaped boxes designed to get under your furniture. But they are very handy: set the robots free on your livingroom floor and they whiz around like a dervish trying to catch all the dirt they can.

While vacuum-cleaning robots are taking over the living room, it is not the only place that youll find automatons bearing the domestic burden. Siemens, recognising that men dislike ironing, has launched the Dressman. This robot is shaped like a mannequin with a skin of balloon silk. Shirts are ironed in six minutes when the Dressman inflates itself with hot air and presses the shirt into shape.

Then theres the ApriAlpha V3, which will respond to orders, take control of home appliances such as the TV or air conditioning and read out internet content. There are also robots that will make sure that your home isnt burgled in your absence. We already have Sonys Aibo, the dog that keeps the family entertained when its not guarding your home with a .3 megapixel camera to snap intruders.

The more advanced Dr Robot Sputnik will go on patrol, too until it comes across a prowler. Then it sends video and audio alerts for you to access remotely. It can even relay voice messages so that you can bellow at a startled villain.

Robot developers are also building more advanced machines to entertain us. ZMPs nuvo is a 15-jointed terrier-size pal that obeys voice or mobile phone commands to do somersaults, play music, take photos, walk and talk. Its designed by Ken Okuyama, the man behind the Ferrari Enzo and Ferrari Rosa, and costs about $6,000 (3,300).

But what about Valerie, a domestic android with advanced Artificial Intelligence now in development. Her creator, Chris Willis, says that Valerie can change light bulbs, lift loads of 50lb, set the table, paint, wash clothes, dust, do the dishes, check the sports results, book plane tickets and call the police in an emergency. Disconcertingly, Valerie also looks like a mannequin modelled on a Baywatch babe. Buyers of the 5ft 8in $59,000 android can choose the tone of her silicone skin, the shade of her hair and her eye colour. Valerie wont talk back either unless you ask it (her) to.

The personal robotics industry may still be in its infancy, but ten years from now Willis predicts that 10 per cent of the US population will have some form of personal robot.

Plus: James Dyson says designers should concentrate on creating robots that do jobs for us, rather than providing companionship