Future Tech: Robots entering the home

Robotic house servant to bring you beers? T3 investigates...

Future questions answered, definitively

We’ve all been waiting for certain tech to be invented and, largely thanks to Hollywood, our hopes have been built and built but constantly dashed. So fed up without any actual answers, we’ve took it upon ourselves to answer 10 of the classic tech questions once and for all.

We've already taken a look at the possibility of driverless cars the notion of flying cars, and pills giving us brain power. T3 now turns it attention to: Robots in the home.

What's the big idea?

Roomba writ large. By the middle of this century, our ageing population will have grown to the extent that one in four Brits will be over the age of 65 (compared with one in six today). Some researchers believe that we'll have no choice but to turn to synthetic hands when it comes to looking after the frail. And it's not just the elderly: schoolchildren could be taught by robot teachers, while the lonely and the horny could get their kicks from a burgeoning market for sexbots.

What's happening now?

The uprising has already begun. Droids designed for small, targeted tasks are rolling out of the lab all the time. A robot pharmacist that sorts drug prescriptions in UK hospitals has cut the time it takes to dispense drugs to waiting patients in half. Others have been designed to help autistic children understand emotions or keep the elderly company. But a crucial body of research is also looking at how robots can interact safely with us, their flesh-and-blood overlords.

Alexander Lenz works at the Bristol Robotics Lab on a project called CHRIS (Cooperative Human Robot Interaction Systems). “Making the transition from robots that are kept separate from us because they are big and powerful to those that operate alongside us is not easy,” he explains. “There are many issues in terms of behaviour. For example, one of our projects at the moment is eye gaze. If I talk to a robot and say, 'I like that', is the robot able to follow my gaze and realise what I mean?”

What's the hold up?

True autonomous are fiddly things. Lenz and other roboticists have a thousand little things to perfect before we see anything approaching C3PO.

“Visual recognition is still a problem,” says Lenz, by way of example. “How do we make robots recognise that an object sat on a table is separate from the table, and that it's something you can touch and move?”

There's also a question of economic practicality. “Let's say I have a household robot that serves me my food and tidies up my kitchen. Probably that robot would only be used two hours a day, perhaps in the morning and again when I get home from work. Yet it's going to cost me about as much as a car.” In other words, you may be happy to load the dishwasher yourself.

When could we see it?

Robots designed for a specific function, such as surgery, will be rolled out from now onwards. “I think we will see robots in more structured environments, assisting on a building site or serving food to patients in a hospital,” Lenz says. Your all-singing, all-dancing mechanised house servant won't be ready for decades. Sorry.

Stay tuned to T3.com for more future tech questions answered

- Future Tech: Will we ever see driverless cars?

- Future Tech: Will we ever see a flying car?

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