The Promise of a Robot Butler

If you grew up watching cartoons, it’s known that today we were all supposed to have robots doing those menial chores so we could do better things, more entertaining things, like hop between planets for interstellar concerts or trips to the casino on the closest meteor.

Nobody likes doing laundry. Or dishes. Or house work of any kind. Cleaning is pretty much the worst, right?

Back in 1962, when space flight was a promise in President John F. Kennedy’s speech to the United States and residents of Mars looked like Marvin the Martian and the Great Gazoo, the world was introduced to Rosie the Robot. 

Rosie was the best: She did everything the Jetsons needed her to do: cooking, cleaning, keeping track of Astro the dog and Elroy the son while helping Judy and Jane cover their tracks so George wouldn’t flip his lid when he got home after a bad day at Spacely Sprockets. 

Know what else was going on in 1962? The Cuban Missile Crisis. Marilyn Monroe sang Happy Birthday to Kennedy and quickened pulses (and raised eyebrows, among other things). James Meredith’s attempts to enroll at the University of Mississippi led to riots. The first Walmart opened and Spider-Man made his first appearance. John Diefenbaker was Prime Minister of Canada, presiding over the opening of the Trans-Canada Highway and the last three hangings in the nation. And in the hopes of making us all better people and neighbours, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood premieres on CBC.

Obviously, everything has changed since then—Mister Rogers is a calming influence from YouTube many years after his death, music is everywhere but no one pays for it and conspiracy theories abound about the deaths of Kennedy and Monroe both. 

Technology has consumed the world around us, yet we’re still doing laundry, taking out the trash, making our own beds and cooking on our own. Where are our robot servants? 

To go forward, let’s take a little step backwards. Ok, maybe more like a jump. 

There’s evidence that ancient peoples in Greece, China and Egypt were trying to develop machines that could move independently of people and might be capable of accomplishing small tasks.  In the BC era, Greek engineer Ctesibius used pneumatics to create an organ and water clocks; by the 11th century, Buddhists believed the relics of Buddha were protected by mechanical creatures. Leonardo di Vinci envisioned flying machines but also a robotic knight originally designed for a pageant in Milan on the request of a duke. When a prototype of the robot knight was built in 2002, using da Vinci’s original plans, it was able to walk and wave. 

By the 1900s, building artificial bipedal creatures that kind of sort of looked like humans, or were at least upright and capable of doing things humans did, began to catch on. The first recorded instance of the use of the term “robot” came around in the 1920 play R. U. R. by Karel Capek, a writer for Czechoslovakia, though his brother Josef is believed to be the source. In 1928, the Exhibition of the Society of Model Engineers, in London, featured a homemade machine able to speak, tell time, shake hands and sit down upon command, but the primitive robot had to be controlled by a person.

By the 1950s, George C. Devol was tinkering with mechanical arms directly related to the robots used today to build cars in factories around the world.

Devol’s creation, Unimate, began as so many great ideas do: he was swapping ideas with a colleague over drinks, discussing sci-fi novels. By 1961, Devol patented Universal Automation (Unimation for short, later further abbreviated to Unimate) and that same year General Motors installed the first robotic arm in its plant in Ewing Township, NJ. 

The next year, we were introduced to Rosie.

In 1981, a robot as tall as a grown man was able to iron clothes (insert your own men ironing joke here if you’d like), operating on batteries that could last up to three hours before needing to be recharged. 

A few years later, there were really rough versions of robot pets hitting the market, to the delight of techy kids everywhere, not to mention shows like “Small Wonder,” in which an inventor creates a robot girl and his family tries to convince everyone the little girl, Vici (for Voice Input Child Identicant), is their adopted daughter. Oh, the ‘80s were a wonderful time, huh? This was the same decade that gave us MacGyver, who could invent anything from some duct tape and ingenuity and get himself out of scrapes without messing up his hair too badly. 

But the bottom line is that, when it comes to having our own Rosies or real-life version of JARVIS from Iron Man, we’re still waiting. 

There have been developments: we have microwaves that help cook our food fasters; dishwashers that do, admittedly, speed the process; laundry machines that can adjust the amount and temperature of water and the length of a wash cycle based on how much we try to cram into the washing machine in a single load; and the Roomba, beloved by people who hate vacuuming and cats looking for a motorized ride around the room alike. There’s even a robotic lawnmower.

In January 2016, Mark Zuckerberg announced his New Year’s Resolution was to build some kind of artificial intelligence to help him around his house, including monitoring the room of his newborn daughter, Max. If nothing else, interest in robotics from companies with large reserves of cash including Facebook, Google, Tesla/SpaceX should help speed innovations, experimentation and maybe even the development of humanoid mechanical companions and helpers that can take on some domestic tasks, even if they’re trivial. 

The view is slightly different in Japan, where an aging population combined with one of the most technologically innovative populations in the world is looking to use robots to help in medical establishments. The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) developed Paro, a plush seal designed as a therapeutic companion for seniors in nursing homes or rehabilitation facilities. Panasonic is developing another robot that could help a person wash their hair or administer medication. At MEDICA 2011, Kobayashi Lab from the Tokyo University of Science introduced a suit powered by artificial muscles, followed in 2012 by the Tokyo Institute of Technology’s pneumatic robot holder that assisted in a laparoscopic operation. 

In 2011, a graduate from the University of California-Berkeley walked across the stage and received his diploma with the help of a robotic exoskeleton developed at the Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory led by Homayoon Kazerooni, a professor of mechanical engineering.

So what’s the hold-up for domestic, every-day-use robots? A delicate, light touch and the ability to make intricate decisions over whether a beer bottle is empty or full, among other challenges. 

In 2010, the Korea Institute of Science and Technology demonstrated the domestic abilities of Mahru Z and Mahru M. Mahru Z  was able to detect microwaves, washing machines and toasters and could pick up delicate items like sandwiches. Mahru M, like Mahru Z, could make and serve coffee and toast, but it took considerably longer for the robots to prepare breakfast than it would the average eight-year-old.

Atlas, developed by the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition with some help from the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, can sweep the floor and run a vacuum, but those are skills just recently added to Atlas’ repertoire. Besides, Atlas’ main purpose is helping in search and recovery missions during natural disasters and attacks. Y’know, the important things. 

Since 1962, we’ve been able to develop humanoid robots that work alongside astronauts on the International Space Station, but we still can’t get one to pick up the dirty socks or master the mystery of folding a fitted sheet. 

Amber Healy

How did we get here? Where did we come from -- and where are we going? I want to learn about all of it, even if it's terrifying. Curiosity will lead the way (it's on Mars already, after all).

View all posts

Amber Healy

How did we get here? Where did we come from -- and where are we going? I want to learn about all of it, even if it's terrifying. Curiosity will lead the way (it's on Mars already, after all).

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