The presentation of Tesla’s Optimus robotic prototypes caused a lot of ink to flow. The press and experts saw only clumsy, unmasked robots. Could the domestic robot of the future be a human? Is it believable? And will we just accept it?
In the collective imagination, a robot is often seen as a human being with remarkable abilities – strength, agility, intelligence… There is no shortage of robot models adopting traits and characteristics more or less close to those of humans. One of the most famous is undoubtedly Atlas from Boston Dynamics, but the list is long, between the adorable little Nao (initially developed by Aldebaran), the impressive Ameca from Engineered Arts, which caused a stir at the recent CES from Las Vegas, or Xiaomi’s CyberOne.
What is the capacity of these robots?
With all the humility to which Elon Musk is accustomed, the Tesla “boss” talks, among other things, about relieving humanity of painful tasks and about “radically transforming civilization”… If Optimus initially developed inside Tesla’s factories, starting with basic tasks, Elon Musk aims to mass-produce them for less than $20,000. What could be Optimus’ fate is not entirely clear because in the videos that air, we sometimes see him carrying packages, watering stations, or handling parts at the factory. From there to imagining a robot capable of interacting with humans and doing everything in a home environment, there is only one step. And the old fantasy of a robotic housekeeper doing all the housework is not far off.
Demonstrations of such bots can sometimes be quite impressive. We can mention for example the Samsung robot, Handy, which is able to fill the dishwasher, offer a drink or put dirty laundry in the basket, or Ameca, which talks to visitors to the show in Las Vegas, or even Atlas (Boston Dynamics) that runs, jumps and skips complex obstacles without batting an eyelid…but these robots do what they’re programmed to do. Can they multitask around the house, for example?
Robots in charge of household chores?
Can you imagine a robot that does all the housework? For this to happen one day, he must first be able to adapt to his environment. Starting from the space, the furniture, the design of the rooms… we can make a comparison with the market we know well: that of robotic vacuum cleaners. This has required several decades of research and development to be able to truly adapt to the diversity of our interiors. And even if they have now reached a promising level of maturity, the ability to map and adapt to the majority of situations, they still sometimes forget to sneak into such-and-such a place, hang on to a cable or perhaps get stuck in a snag.
“Running a self-driving car on a given route is easier than driving a home robot in a completely randomly designed, private environment.”
Researcher in Cognitive and Social Sciences at Artimon
However, if they can now be more versatile with vacuuming and washing, they remain confined to one task: floor maintenance. We can make the same observation for all robots that aim to relieve us of housework, for example, window cleaning robots, pool cleaners, lawn mowers, etc.
If we hope to entrust the same robot with several tasks so that it frees us from all the cleaning, for example, the technical challenges multiply. Because, in addition to the environment, it must also adapt to the objects with which it is handled. If we take the example of a manual robot again, it must be able to handle cups or plates of different shapes, different materials, to throw laundry in baskets that do not have the same shape depending on the place of residence, to store things in cupboards installed at different heights, in dwellings with a configuration Very variable. However, this is undoubtedly one of the most complex challenges to be faced, Nicholas Spatola, a researcher in cognitive and social sciences at Artimon, explained to Pathfinder : For a robot, adaptation is a very complex thing. Driving an autonomous car on a standardly marked road is easier than driving a home robot in a completely randomly designed, private environment. »
The importance of the model
Now imagine a robot taking on one of these tasks, for example sweeping and then mopping the floor. He should be able to move around the dorm, to pick up and use the vacuum cleaner in the house, and maybe to vacuum things around everywhere, as we do – things that aren’t always in exactly the same place, like chairs.
The other tangible challenge: being able to “bend down” to clean under the couch… not to mention the ups and downs of potentially washing floors.
Dyson, which announced that it is investing in the field of robotics with the aim of developing a robot dedicated to performing household chores, revealed some of its projects. Robots that may be able to grab objects, put them away, dust off the sofa … they obviously don’t take the form of humanoids, but rather robotic arms covered with sensors. Of all the domestic robots dedicated to making us happy in our daily lives, no one chooses this look. One wonders if it would really be the most relevant and whether the technical challenge was worth the effort. Moreover, many of the robots already in use in industrial or medical fields rarely multitask, and as far as we know, none of them look human-like.
And that is without mentioning the fundamental ethical and philosophical questions that cannot be completely ruled out. Namely: would we be willing to accept living with a robot that “looks like us,” capable of learning, perhaps talking to us, and even keeping us company?
Automated house fairy, at what cost?
Technological challenge aside, if such a robot capable of managing everything in a home—from cooking to cleaning—sees the light of day, it’s hard to imagine its price tag. Remember, Tesla states a price of $20,000 for full-scale production.
If we simply return to today’s home robotics market, the most advanced and intelligent robotic vacuum cleaners sell for more than 1,000 euros – a tidy sum indeed. And even if the development of the market shows clear interest from consumers, their presence in homes remains a matter of course. Only 5% of French families have it (Gevam study conducted with Kantar, 2021). As for the robotic mowers, they are much more expensive (the price of the most elaborate ones exceeds 2,000 euros) and even more discreet.
The fictional multitasking home robot, capable of relieving us of all daily chores, is still so far from reality and it’s hard to know if it will ever be able to become. And even more to imagine what it could be like. The developments in the field of research make us dream of its development in the coming decades. We still have to be able to put up with it and be ready to accept it in our homes.