About two years ago I put together a proposal for a solution to the array of problems facing the domestic robot. You know the kind, the robotic maid that was part of “ Tomorrowland “ in the 1960’s (hence the project name “ Rosie “) and “just around the corner” in the 1980’s but instead the best we could manage what the Roomba .
There’s a number of reasons we never got our robot butlers. Over time some of these have been addressed by dramatic improvements in technology and the reduced cost of components. In other areas however there has been little applicable progress; machine vision, artificial intelligence and dynamic feedback control systems (responding to changing conditions, etc.), all of these areas have improved since the 1980’s but not enough to make building a domestic robot practical, and even with an unlimited budget, such a machine would have limitations that would disappoint.
What has improved dramatically since the 80’s though is communication networks, and in many ways these networks have made it possible for people to work together around the world, regardless of physical location and to some degree, without the encumbrances of social-political borders or economic limitations. These networks allow work to be distributed globally, from programmers to telemarketers to drive-through attendants.
However for the most part taking advantage of the ability to work globally has been limited to work that can be transmitted electronically (there are a few exceptions). Wouldn’t it be cool if people who work in the physical world could enjoy the same power and convenience that telecommuters have enjoyed for decades?
This is where Rosie comes in. Initially replacing the role of the household cleaning service, Rosie is a telepresence robot that combines the mechanical and electrical advances in robotics with the availability of high-speed communications networks to provide the safety and convenience of a domestic robot with the control and intellect currently only available via a human operator.
By abstracting physical presence from the housekeeping work, Rosie provides increased value to the housekeeper in the form of reduced cost, scalability, increased safety and tangental educational benefits as well.
For the housekeeping customer, Rosie increases convenience, reduces cost-per- utility and allows for greater control and management of the service with lower personal overhead.
Additionally, Rosie provides housekeeping professionals with training and experience beyond the work at hand, creating a growing number of experienced professional operators who’s skills could be transitioned to maintaining and operating robots for more diverse applications.
The nature of housekeeping work strikes a nice balance between providing a challenging engineering task for the design of the robot while at the same time remaining simple and focused enough that designing and implementing such a machine is within the means of current technology and within reach of a small team with a relatively short development timeline (1-2 years).
The up-front and operational cost of such a robot is such that it could employ a mobile-phone-style pricing structure, baking the unit price into a fixed contract resulting in a monthly cost that is equivalent to a traditional housekeeping service but with the potential to provide better service.
A side-effect of this pricing structure is that off-contract robots become the property of the housekeeping customer, allowing them to be sold off-contract and potentially applied to additional uses, which leads to “phase two” of this project.
By underwriting the development of a basic but functional telepresence chassis, the Rosie product funds the development of more sophisticated machines that can then be dispatched for more challenging tasks. Evolution of the design is part of this proposal, and within a year or two of rolling out the housekeeping models, new models designed for other jobs will become available. It’s not hard to imagine other areas of work that would benefit from decoupling the work from a human operator, allowing for more flexible scheduling (since workers could be available from other parts of the world), reductions in safety-related costs (specialized machines can accommodate work that is unsafe or uncomfortable for on-location humans).
It’s also worth pointing out that manual-labor is not the only application for such robots, that any profession which currently requires (or benefits from) physical presence could be improved by specialized telepresence robots or by the availability of general-purpose robots that could be dispatched around the world quickly and conveniently (it’s not hard to imagine offices or factories maintaining a collection of such machines the way that they currently maintain other office equipment, allowing instant on-site visits from employees from other locations).
Rosie (and descendants) can operate anywhere that can be reached by the control network, and without the life-support requirements of living workers, this includes extra-terrestrial operations.
In the years since I first proposed Rosie, interest in telepresence has been on the rise. Several companies have introduced telepresence products at increasingly accessible price-points, evidence that a market is emerging for these machines. However, the machines currently available seem to be an evolution of telecommunication devices and lack the ability to interact with their environment beyond sight and sound. For these reasons I believe that Rosie is now a viable product and that investment in such an effort now will lead a generation of such robots, laying the foundation for future machines with more automatic, autonomous capabilities, and I would be happy to lend my experience to such a project.