With Dyson and Google Investing, Are We Now Nearing the Age of the Robot Butler?

By Gerald Lynch on at

That mountain of washing up. The pile of dirty laundry. The steaming cat litter tray. Get on with it -- they won't clean themselves. Or at least, not yet. Dyson has become the latest company to announce significant investment in the robotics industry, bringing us one step closer to our own mechanical Jeeves.

Sir James Dyson's home appliances company has made a £5 million investment in a robotic research lab at Imperial College London, with a further £3 million investment to be injected by various sources over the coming five years. As you'd expect from Dyson, the hope is to further the development of robots capable of carrying out household chores.

"My generation believed the world would be overrun by robots by the year 2014. We now have the mechanical and electronic capabilities, but robots still lack understanding -- seeing and thinking in the way we do,” said Dyson. "Mastering this will make our lives easier and lead to previously-unthinkable technologies."

Dyson has been said to have been working on a robotic vacuum cleaner to go along with his company's famous bagless line for as long as a decade now, with Dyson frustrated at his prototypes' inability to navigate simple household obstacles. Indeed, even the greatest Roomba finds itself at a loss under a tangle of dining room chairs, and would shrug its shoulders when faced with a flight of stairs.

But the tide could be turning, with giants of the engineering and tech worlds such as Dyson and even Google both investing in the area. Google has been on a robotics spending spree of late, buying eight major robotics companies, the most high-profile of which is Boston Dynamics. This is the company responsible for the BigDog and Atlas robots, two machines that have come incredibly close to the sort of natural movement science-fiction has had us come to expect from our electronic helpers.

As for there ever being a robot butler to buy down your local John Lewis, the problem, from a consumer point of view, is perception. We do already have robots, of a sort, aiding us in all aspects of our lives, all around us. It's just that they don't look much like C-3PO or R2-D2. Think of car manufacturing production lines, for instance, where the majority of work is carried out by automated arms, each working to a single purpose. Heck, even your washing machine is a robot, if not in the Buck Rogers way you immediately associate with the word. Tellingly, Google's investments have not been made with an eye towards the consumer sphere, but the manufacturing one.

And yet, its recent purchases in Nest and DeepMind suggest (respectively) that home automation and advanced AI (the kind required by a high-functioning robot) is high on Google's agenda. Should it make headway in the manufacturing world, Google's innovations here will trickle down into consumer-facing robotic devices, without a shadow of doubt.

And so back to the point of perception. It's totally possible that we'll have an increasing number of specific robots for specific tasks in the near future -- advances in programming and engineering already allow for robots excellent at carrying out repetitive actions. As for a humanoid helper in a tail coat with an RP accent, we're still some way off from having one homebound automaton to rule them all, but we're finally seeing the right companies with bank balances to match their ambitions paving the way to make it happen.

Image Credit: Funny robot from Shutterstock.com