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Why domestic robots have failed to spark the public imagination.

Kathleen Richardson

Topics Science & Tech

Never want to vacuum your floor again, mow your lawn or do your ironing? Want to have a robot take care of the security system in your home, or give you a summary of the day’s headlines? Today, you can buy domestic robots that can perform most of these tasks – but unlike the introduction of domestic machines in the 1950s, few people are really excited about them today.

Domestic robots are a flourishing business. One of these is a household robot called ‘Wakamaru’ built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which costs around $8500 – and can be ‘programmed to call or email a designated person, a hospital or security firm if it notices a problem’ (1). In Canada, ‘Dr Robot’ is a home security robot, and can be bought for prices ranging from $1000 to $3000 each (2). The robotics firm, iRobot – one of the founders of which was Rodney Brooks, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory – launched its US advertising campaign for the Roomba vacuum cleaner in 2003 (3). Priced at $200, Roomba works by moving autonomously around the home.

Hundreds of companies and researchers are now involved in making domestic robots, and I look forward to having my ironing done by a robotic ironing machine currently being developed (4). Commercial domestic robots are mainly still luxury items, yet analysts predict cheaper and more sophisticated domestic robots to come.

However, despite all these new trends in the research and development of domestic robots, they seem to have made a fairly limited cultural impact. This is very different from the way in which domestic machines were received in the past.

From the 1950s, when domestic machines first made a mass appearance, machines and robots became synonymous with optimistic and liberating visions of the future, where people would have more free time for pursuing other interests and pleasures.

So widespread were these ideas of domestic robots that they were regularly featured in trade shows, magazines, films and television programs (5). Rosie the Robot, and the Jetsons family, of the classic cartoon series The Jetsons, captured this outlook. The Jetsons theme tune went: ‘They can rocket to the future, they can rocket to the moon, they can work on Jupiter, or play on Neptune. Machines do the working, machines do run, if they need anything they push a button and it’s done.’ (6) During the 1970s, some feminists also had great expectations of domestic machines and robots, arguing that women’s emancipation was closely tied to the gradual reduction of labour in the home through mechanisation.

Why do domestic robots seem to provoke so little cultural excitement in the twenty-first century? Even the companies who make robots seem pretty unexcited about them. According to an iRobot press release, CEO Colin Angle’s says of the Roomba vacuum cleaner: ‘Our vision is to create products that make it possible for housekeeping to be something you do by choice. If you choose not to, our automatic products will offer a simple, easy and effective alternative. Its affordable price of $199.95 will finally make the benefits of advanced navigation technology attainable to the average consumer.’ (7)

The main marketing strategies promote domestic robots as cool or practical gadgets, or make even peculiar statements that they are like humans, such as in Mitsubishi’s advertising philosophy that says Wakamaru is a ‘robot that prefers to be known as “one person” rather than “one unit”’. It seems that robots are being received as gadgets, rather than as machines that could transform the way we live our lives. Perhaps it is our society’s lack of a vision of the future that means we think unimaginatively about our robots.

This lack of cultural interest has translated into poor sale figures for robotic items. According to a United Nations Special Report on Domestic Robots, ‘up to the end of 2000, very few vacuum cleaning robots were sold…. The forecast for the overall market of vacuum cleaning robots, lawn-mowing robots, and other household robots for the period 2001-2004 is 425,000 units.’ (8)

It is certain that domestic robots will be developed by scientists and companies, and bought by consumers – but if these objects no longer embody any progressive ideals, they will never really touch our lives as did domestic machines of the past. Perhaps scientists who make robots, and the companies that sell them, should think more inspiringly about these products – otherwise a great technology could miss an opportunity to change our lives for the better.

Kathleen Richardson is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, studying what the making of robots can tell us about what it means to be human. Kathleen is conducting her fieldwork at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA.

Read on:

Man or machine?, by Kathleen Richardson

(1) Meet Wakamaru, the Linux-powered humanoid robot, 22 April 2003

(2) Domestic Robots or Androids

(3) Roomba vacuum cleaner

(4) British scientists develop robotic ironing machine, Ananova

(5) Delivering on the Promise of Household Robots, Graham Man

(6) See The Jetsons

(7) iRobot introduces roomba™ intelligent floorvac – the first automatic floor cleaner in the US

(8) Jan Karlsson, UNECE, ‘Domestic Robots’, UN Special No 604 – February 2002

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Topics Science & Tech

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