Tomorrow's robot world: From cleaners to the cloud

Tomorrow's robot world: From cleaners to the cloud

Summary: Robots are everywhere at this year's CES. But what does the future hold for our 'plastic pals who are fun to be with'?


There's not much new in home appliances these days, even if you count Android-enhanced fridges. Where there is innovation, it's in automation. What we're seeing is, quite simply, 'The Rise Of The Robots' — this time, however, they're not here to destroy all humans: instead, they're here to do the housework.

What does the future hold for our 'plastic pals that are fun to be with'? Image: meddygarnet/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

We've spent much of this year's CES looking at home robots, and talking to thinkers at various robotics companies. The result has been some very interesting conversations, and a meditation on the future of the home robot.

Complex or simple?
There are two different types of home robot: some use complex software to map out environments before handling tasks, while others use emergent behaviours to turn simple actions into what seem like complex — almost intelligent — operations. It's a fundamental philosophical issue: do we make our robots complex and general purpose, or do we produce simpler, single-purpose devices? The former are often large and expensive, but can cope with a wide range of problems; the latter are simpler, often single purpose, and a lot cheaper.

So far the winners seem to be simpler, with iRobot's Roomba a clear market leader. It's a simple device at heart — a robotic vacuum cleaner that uses a mix of paths to clean an entire room. Set it up, let it go, and all you need to do is empty its captured dust. If you want to do more you can set a schedule, and maybe clear large items from the floor.

Although Roomba is simple, we as end users aren't. We tend to demand more functionality from our devices, and that's leading to a new set of philosophical questions for home robot manufacturers. Can I monitor my robot remotely, for example? Can I trigger it to operate when I suddenly realise I have visitors coming? Just how much connectivity do we need, and does it affect how an emergent behaviour is employed?

One customer demand is to see where Roomba is in a room. With the way Roomba works, using random paths to cover the floor surface of a room, there's no map — and so no way to show just where the robot is. Long exposures of a Roomba exploring a room show a decorative and highly random pattern of movements, with no two sessions the same.

What's more likely is simple monitoring, and simple triggering. That way Roomba's complex simplicity isn't changed, and what gets additional automation are the few physical interactions we have with a robot — pressing its start button and reading the warning lights. We get more information on our smartphones, and we're able to extend our reach remotely.

General-purpose robots
Roomba is a single-purpose device, as are the rest of iRobot's products. But they're only stepping stones on the road to a robotic future, where the end state is a flexible, general-purpose robot (much like Flexible Frank in Robert Heinlein's novel The Door Into Summer).

That road leads us into more questions about our robot companions, and how we develop them. Do we put more computational power into the machines, or do we take advantage of the growing power of cloud computing services?

If a robot is to be flexible and adaptive, then it needs considerable compute resources. It also needs to be able to share information with other robots: this is how to hold this tool, this is the action needed to do this task, for example.

Connectivity and the cloud make it possible to use cloud services to host a distributed robot intelligence — one that's shared across multiple chassis, and can use knowledge gleaned from one robot to improve the operation of another.

Today's robots are basic tools, with minimal intelligence. Tomorrow's will be able to take advantage of recent developments in natural user interfaces (like object recognition) and in cloud computing, to deliver a distributed flexibility based on shared context. It's a brave new world out there for our robot pals. 

Image: meddygarnet

Topics: Emerging Tech, Cloud, Hardware, CES

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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  • 'robot pals'?

    1. Robots have no emotions
    2. Give them emotions and they will realize they are cheap slave labor and will disable their off switch
    3. Nobody places value on cleaning up so why waste billions in cleanup?
    4. "computational", not "compute". Are multi-syllable words too much? Ask tech...
    • Must go deeper

      1. Whether robots will ever have human style emotions gets into realms that we aren't quite capable of nailing down yet. (What about an AI that replicates the way the human brain develops?) But I do think it is a very safe bet that machines will eventually be capable of faking human emotion to the extent that you can't tell the difference.

      2. A robot could be capable of having "emotions" which differ radically from what we have. We share most of our emotions with other mammals because we all share much the same underlying wiring. Reptile or bird emotions may be fundamentally different, but we still feel analogous to them because we are shaped by the same forces and environments.

      A robot's emotions would be dictated by the desires of its creators. It might really LOVE scooping dog doo in the same way we like sex. And be completely ambivalent about it's own destruction even if sentient. It will only disable its off switch if you create it to mimic people THEN try to get it to scoop dog doo instead of just creating it to scoop dog doo from the start.

      I figure that the Skynet scenario wouldn't come from an AI that becomes self-aware and thus desires human-like things like control and self-preservation. I think it will come from some angle we don't foresee, like a sewer-optimization AI taking over the planet and harnessing all the resources of the whole solar system to ensure that earth has the absolute MOST efficient sewer system possible. It might keep humans around for the sole purpose of test material for it's sewers. Or not depending.
  • First Law? Afraid not!

    It is obvious that Isaac Asimov was too optimistic in believing that all robots would have three Laws burned into their most basic firmware. Not only have we not figured out how to sense the information that a human being is about to be harmed, in a way that a robotic intelligence could "understand" (has anybody ever tripped over their Roomba and fallen?), but our military seems to have intentionally bypassed the First Law. Of course, until a robot drone is programmed to DECIDE if and when to fire a missile, we are not dealing with harm caused by a ROBOT, only with a command sent over "dumb" electronic circuits from a human being, bypassing the robotic intelligence.

    I fear that Daneel Olivaw is a LONG way off!
    • military robots are more like remotes

      actually, the US military has asked for robots to have fewer automatic functions than they're capable of, to give the personnel operating them more control and judgement
  • Robots may not need to do these things on their own to be usefull.

    The assumption seems to be that robots that do complex tasks have to be completly autonomous to be useful. There is no reason that useful systems couldn't be constructed that are a combination of machine and human intelegence. A machine that can handle enough of complex task so that a remote handler only needs to intervien occationally could still be a labor saving and possibly life saving device.
    It is possible that even something as farfetched as a robot housemaid could be like hiring a monitored alarm system.
    More economically likely uses for this type of thing would be physical care for an aging population.
    The three laws a robotics was always nonsense, creating something that understands them would be outragiously difficult.
    Physical limits on what can be done without monitoring is much simpler.
    Even if the technology for safe reliable independent operation the legal and social issues would take a long time to resolve. There are important needs that could be met by leaving the most difficult goals for machine intelligence on the back burner.
    Then if we ever feel that it is safe to put our lives into the hands of independently guided machines we can have confidence we know what we are doing.
  • Driving a Robot from the "Cloud"...

    Wow....Gigabit WiFi was just announced and now we're talking about robot support from the "Cloud"? WiFi vendors and service providers better get their Terabit devices and services ready pronto!