The Ubiquitous Robot Butler

Just because a prediction is enshrined in pop culture, doesn’t mean it’s a good prediction. So it is with the ubiquitous vision of the robot butler, usually a roughly humanoid robot with enough intelligence to do all your chores and make witty remarks, but no more. Everyone in fiction from the Jetsons (with Rosie) to Iron Man (with Jarvis) seems to have one that more or less fits the stereotype. Is the robot butler a serious prediction for the near future, or is it just jetpacks and flying cars all over again?

Let’s break this topic up into manageable categories. First, a look into the feasability of roughly humanoid robots. The good news is that robots that look like the classical robot butler already exist, and indeed are extremely popular. You only need to look at models like NAO, Manav, and TALOS to see proof of that, although you’d probably want to scale up the first two if they were going to do chores. The main problem you run into is hands – roboticists have struggled for years to create mechanical appendages with the same level of dexterity and felxibility of use as the human hand. There have been promising developments over the last few years, but we’re still a good ways away from a robot hand that can go from folding laundry to washing dishes. Still, it’s not unrealistic to hope that in the next decade or so we may wind up with a robot that’s physically capable of doing your chores – and simultaneously looking dapper in a tuxedo, if you want.

With that hurdle crossed, let’s look at the next: a robot that’s smart enough to do all your chores. This is considerably harder. For example, to walk around picking up your stuff, it has to be able to navigate your house by itself, including obstacles like your dirty pants on the floor. (Let’s be honest here, you didn’t buy a robot butler to then keep the house scrupulously tidy yourself all the time so it doesn’t fall over.) We’re working on making robots that can do that by walking like a human – but it’s slow going. So for now you’re better off with a wheeled or treaded robot. But hey, that’s not so bad! Who cares if your robot butler has wheels instead of legs?

You care. You care because we’re found an exremely challenging task in just walking, never mind doing something like handling slippery, easily torn silk shirts. It was a big deal when Boston Dynamics came up with a robot called Spot Mini that could deliver you a soda or load a dishwasher, and it would take a whole lot more smarts to, for example, take out the trash. Even if the trash was already in a container that was easy for the robot to pick up, it would have to figure out how to go outside, get to a dumpster, recognize the dumpster, open the dumpster, and get the trash inside. On the other hand, that Spot Mini robot is going on sale this year (2019), so we’re making progress.

Long story short, a robot smart enough to do your chores isn’t out of the question, but it’s likely to be a good long while before it’s available commercially, let alone at an affordable price point. We may actually manage General Artificial Intelligence, something capable of learning like a human, before we can make a dumb program capable of doing the same sorts of chores. But that’s good news for our third criteria of witty comments, because anything more capable of conversation than a chatbot will almost certainly require human-level intelligence. They’re not called clever remarks for nothing – they take a lot of brainpower, compared to what we currently have available.

Keen observers may have noticed I haven’t brought up the issue of whether it’s right or wrong to have an intelligence smart enough to really talk to in the role of the perpetual servant to humans. That’s a very complex question to answer, and we’ll go over it at length in a future article. Luckily we have plenty of time to figure out the answer, as such a robot butler still seems to be at least a decade away, if not rather more.

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