Why Our Robot Butler Dreams Will Soon be a Reality

By Gary Cutlack on at

The closest most of us get to having a robot helper around the place is when the toaster pops up a bit of toast automatically -- and even then it’s such a dumb machine it burns the stuff half the time. So what chance is there of us having a proper, useful, sci-fi robot buddy to clean the toilet and make pancakes and smalltalk on a Sunday morning within our lifetimes?

Things are moving in the right direction, and quite quickly. Just think of the strides made in voice input and AI processing over the last few years, changes that have quickly filtered down to us lot. It’s now easy to ask your phone a question and, if you annunciated in a clear, mid-Atlantic tone and didn’t ask it anything rude, get back what can occasionally be a properly useful piece of information.

The hardest part of the puzzle to solve will be getting our future robot helpers to understand our accents, as when a Geordie asks HomeBot 1.2 for some “buttered toast” all the AI routines in the world aren't going to help get the job done.

Although we may already have more in common with current AI tech than you might think. One of Google’s learning systems, developed by the Brit startup DeepMind it bought a couple of years ago, has taught an AI routine to learn to such a great extent that it has mastered a collection of simple arcade games all by itself. It’s not only clever, it’s bored enough to play computer games all day.

The AI learns the concepts of how to play games all by itself rather than being programmed with the rules beforehand. That’s only one or two evolutionary steps from being an actual mate you can hang out with, as long as they program it to occasionally lose multiplayer games so we don’t take an instant dislike to our new algorithm-brained friends.

“Jibo, Look Away, I am Crying”

An MIT roboticist has gone so far as to create a robot that people apparently respond to like a person, a task pulled off by giving it a wacky persona and some eyes on a screen. Jibo is a “social robot” for the home that, although unable to walk and clean toilets or make the toast, could help families to organise their time by… well, at the moment it looks like another screen to point children at so they shut up and leave their parents alone to go on Facebook in peace. Which is really quite handy.

There are some simple, less chatty robots nearing availability too, of the type spearheaded by the Japanese; simple robots to assist and comfort the elderly and infirm. Budgee, made by Five Elements Robotics, wants to be a first-generation robotic home helper, carrying shopping for the aged -- or the briefcases of the lazy super-rich.


The promotional images on the maker’s web site show how far the physical form is lagging the strides made in software, though. Budgee looks like an April Fool’s joke, basically, a sort of wheeled trolley that the seller says could be an “Assistant Robot for the Distinguished Executive” should said executive not mind being laughed at by his peers. It has eyes that light up too, with the maker oblivious to the fact that children’s toys have been doing this since the 1950s and that it’s not really a sign of an aware electronic consciousness.

The physical form is where the push to make robot friends for us all is lagging, or at least confined to billion-dollar military experiments. Externally, the best scientists seem to be able to manage at the moment is creepy-looking Japanese womanbots, with their stiff expressionless faces and dead eyes reminiscent of relationships turned bad.

Japan is about to home an entire hotel staffed by these soulless automatons, where visitors to the Henn-na Hotel will be greeted by ten robots who've been given the ability to pretend to breathe in an attempt to put guests at ease. It sounds like a joke, again, but there are ideas here that ought to filter through to the actual world.

The rooms do away with keys in favour of facial recognition tools, for example, an innovation that’s surely only one Kickstarter campaign away from being installed in luxury flats across the country. The ambition is to one day have 90 per cent of hotel tasks automated, which is fantastic as it’ll be much less embarrassing dealing with a robot when you lock yourself out of your room in only your socks.

Out on a Limb

For a glimpse into how much more realistic the robots of the future may look and move, we need only look at today’s prosthetics scene. Hundreds of people around the world are currently wearing RSL Steeper's Bebionic 3, a prosthetic arm so useful and versatile that wearers routinely talk of how it’s changed their lives -- and demonstrators routinely wow crowds by using it to pick up eggs.


Taking things further still, the iStruct Demonstrator has all four limbs, connected together in a form that mimics that of a chimp. It can walk on all fours, albeit in the slow, stilted manner of a parent walking barefoot around a lounge to avoid standing on Lego. Put a pair of tweezers on it and give it a bucket and it could pick up all the Lego -- saving hours a day for parents.

More physically capable is DARPA’s amazing brick-throwing robot horse. In the home, those could be socks it’s aggressively putting away while you look at your phone.

A more practical glimpse into mundane future home automation was provided late last year by researchers at UC Berkley, who showed how the humans of the year 2030 might not have to manually sniff t-shirts to see which ones need washing and which ones can be stretched out for a few more days.

The PR2 demo bot has been coded to work out which clothes need washing and which don’t, meaning all we'd need to do would be bolt it atop a Roomba for something truly useful and life-changing. Researchers only now need to work out what the symbols on a washing machine actually mean, a task even the world’s clever technicians are still stuck on.

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