Why Aren't Robots Doing Our Laundry Yet?

The promise of household robotics have long gone unfulfilled. Is that finally about to change?
John Loeffler

A recent panel discussion at CES 2019 discussed why the public at large still have not turned to robots to perform household tasks with the same speed as they've adopted other technologies and where the future development of household robots will need to go in order to reverse that trend.

Why Aren't Robots Doing Our Laundry Yet?
Source: John Loeffler for Interesting Engineering

Household Robots Have Been Right Around the Corner for Years

When iRobot released their first consumer market robot, the Roomba vacuuming robot, back in 2002, it was an instant hit. By 2004, a million Roombas had been sold, leading many to hope that personal household robots had finally arrived.

More than a decade later, a lot of concepts have come and gone, but everyone still does their own laundry, folds their clothes, and cooks their meals, with little to no help from the robots we’d all hoped to see by now.

The panelists at a recent ROBOBusiness discussion at CES 2019 reflected on this history and offered their ideas for the future development of household robots that will finally do all the chores we were promised that they would do.

Making Robots Essential

Mark Palatucci, Co-Founder and Head of Cloud AI and Data Science at Anki Robotics, compared the current state of robotics to where voice recognition was several years ago. 

Then, he said, computers couldn’t quite get the hang of human speech, so dictation software and digital assistants were underwhelming and were largely ignored by the consumer.

It was only with the development of machine learning and natural language processing tools that voice recognition could allow for digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home. 

Now, millions of Alexa, Home, or similar digital assistants have been sold through a diverse variety of devices.

Something analogous needs to happen for robots for us to see the same levels of mass adoption.

Making the User Experience Compelling

Ian Bernstein, Founder, and Head of Product for Misty Robotics, said that once the user experience of digital assistants became compelling enough, people made the jump from the apps and software that they’d been using to instead use Alexa and Home, even when the benefit of doing so was marginal.

Robots, he said, need to have that same user experience leap those voice assistants had for robots become integrated into the home. He believes that the day a robot can follow you around and take instructions the way Alexa can, robots will finally start having serious mass appeal.

Giving Robots Personality

Lisa Winters, Mechanical Engineer for Quartz and a veteran robot battle competitor and judge, stressed how humans will anthropomorphize a robot if given the room to do so.

This is one of the keys for robot adoption by the mass market, because once people see the robot as something more than a simple machine, they will see the added utility to owning a robot that does what some other appliance in the home—or they themselves—already do.

Chris Jones, Chief Technology Officer of iRobot, agreed. He pointed out that when iRobot introduced the option of naming your Roomba through the Roomba app on your phone, the response was very positive.

Both Palatucci and Jones spoke about their similar experience with customers insisting that they did not want replacement machines when their robots broke, they wanted their robots repaired and returned to them—they wanted their robot back.

Adopting Robots Into the Home

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When cleaning time doubles as walk time. Thanks for sharing @boomer_corgi.

iRobot (@irobot)'in paylaştığı bir gönderi ()

Ultimately, robots are sophisticated enough to perform many of the household tasks that humans are eager to delegate to technology, though Winters points out that there are still challenges ahead for the more delicate manipulation tasks, such as stocking a refrigerator.


These challenges are solvable, but the consensus was that the key to widespread use of robots for household chores may come down to convincing the user to “adopt” a robot the way they would a pet, rather than have them purchase an appliance, by giving the robot a personality that the user can relate to and engage with.

The participants of ROBOBusiness’ CES 2019 panel all agreed that robots would eventually become a common household feature but how fast that happens depends on how quickly industry leaders start developing robots that are ultimately more than just a machine.

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