Ever since her fall several years ago, the old woman has felt a building sense of guilt about the litany of young social workers forced to come through her tiny, second-story apartment. She’s gotten used to the invasive nature of their view into her life, the indignity of accepting things like sponge-baths from strangers, but she has never really gotten used to the idea of being a burden. She knows it’s their job to help her — on some level, she’s probably doing them a favor by keeping them employed — but she would still like them replaced by robots.
Automation has existed in the home since the dishwasher, but robots on the horizon for consumers will have the capacity to change their lives more than any product before. Here are five big ways the robot will enter the home.
5. The Bad News: Robot Dependence Will Be a Thing
As in the case of elder-care robots, not all dependence upon machines is necessarily bad. There are obvious, positive roles for robots in the home — Ricardo Campa, a professor of sociology at the University of Cracow specializing in the effects of robotics told Inverse they could most notably help “ill or disabled people [who can’t leave without] friends or social workers.” In the future, these people could be free to leave the house and live fuller home lives alongside robotic helpers. On the other hand, research also indicates that robots could form other, more worrying types of dependence.
According to Campa, the problem could be bigger than many expect.
“If we start building humanoid home robots that are beautiful and capable of interacting with humans in a pleasant and satisfactory way, the danger is that we will interact less and less with other fellow humans,” he explains. Not only are robots more reliably polite than humans, but they’ll never lash out, which could lead many humans to become even more cut off from other humans. Soon, it won’t be sex robots that are the only automated devices that regularly exploit human emotion.
Early testing has indicated passing a robot on the street is all one needs to open up to its mindless impartiality. (Robots don’t judge, but they do listen; how nice that must be.) When a robot can live with its owner that connection could build to the point of a problem dependence.
“Sensitive, intelligent people already spend most of their free time reading books, listening to music, watching films, cultivating a hobby, or playing with their pets,” Campa says. “People that are particularly sensitive may be willing to spend more time with beautiful and kind robots, than with humans.”
4. The Good News: No More Chores
Even without true dependence, we could all use a little help around the house. While iRobot’s wildly successful Roomba has been around for fifteen years, it’s been joined by similar machines for auto-mopping, auto-gutter cleaning, and auto-lawn cutting. From fetching the paper to doing the dishes, we could soon have access to robots that can not only do jobs on their own, but initiate and complete them.
On the one hand, the space could conceivably go to what we might call the Boston Dynamics approach. That company’s MiniSpot robot dog-scorpion hybrid is an attempt to make a robot into an island — a totally self-reliant, versatile robot actor in the home, like a quadrupedal version of Rosie the Robot from The Jetsons.
It’s pretty much the holy grail of home robotics — but to iRobot’s VP of technology Chris Jones, it sounds like the wrong path to follow.
Jones tells Inverse that rather than singular, all-purpose robots, the future of household robotics will focus on creating “an ecosystem of robots, each of which is a leader in terms of performing the task it’s made for, but has a family of other platforms it can work with.”
This vision of a house swarming with little, specially tailored robots is certainly evocative — but do we want technology to be that ubiquitous?
3. With Robots, You’ll Never Fully Leave Them Behind
For good or ill, with diverse household robots might present an inescapable connection. As artist and engineer Alexander Reben points out, physically moving robots aren’t required for most persistent social and organizational tasks. “I think much more likely would be sensors in every room which communicate with different, stationary robots to perform tasks.”
We already have Apple Siri, Google Home, and Amazon Echo, but their sensing is mostly confined to single rooms. With always-on autonomous technology working in highly coordinated networks like those iRobot is developing, everything from silent self-tracking algorithms to the persistent ping of Facebook Messenger could become impossible to shut off. Self-surveillance is working its way into watches, glasses, even tattoos, but when people get home they generally want to shed most of those sorts of extraneous concerns. Soon enough, doing so may be a whole lot harder than taking off a bra.
2. Robots Can Be Hacked and Made to Listen to Our Conversations
If anything is going to stop robots from working their way into every corner of the home, it’s security. At this point, most people are aware of the abysmal level of security offered by Internet of Things devices. Because IOT devices can project a hacker into the physical world, reaction to the prospect of robot hacking could be far more extreme. One recent report — “Hacking Robots Before Skynet” — by research firm IOActive found multiple security holes in basically any currently available robotics product they examined.
John Hudson, an economist at the University of Bath who has studied attitudes toward robots for home care, says security could be a major impediment.
“First is the potential for [robots] to be hacked to do things people do not want, or to act as spies in the household,” he tells Inverse. “The hacking being done, for example, by criminal gangs.”
A criminal in the home might use their robotic avatar simply to listen for potentially profitable information, but the potential increases with the versatility of the robots themselves.
Simple uses include things like unlocking doors for intruders or just bashing into things for a sort of vandalism by proxy, but a physical presence can also facilitate more subtle forms of attack. Some of the most powerful viruses and cyber weapons these days spread via physical media, rather than the internet, but robots give hackers their own inroad to the physical world. One of the most powerful security strategies is called “air gapping,” or keeping a network separated from the public internet, but a hacked robot might be able to roll right through this air-gap and physically interact with the protected network on the other side.
1. Robots Will Create “Different Work” for Us
The coming relationship between robots and the traditional conception of work has two schools of thought: One is that robots could take up so many of the daily chores associated with living that they free up significantly more time to focus on happiness. They could allow an all-new level of leisure, but many believe that might not actually be a good thing for us, psychologically.
“Work gives people a role in life,” Hudson says. “Now whilst robots doing that work around the home will be good in opening up people’s time to other activities, it may also dilute their role and rationale in life.”
The other way of conceptualizing work in the robot age is to assume that the impact of a robot that can collect, wash, dry, and put away the dishes will be rather like the impact of the simple dishwasher before it — to free up more time, not to do less work, but more and potentially different work, instead.
Robots could someday take on everything from carpet cleaning to child-care, and between all those applications they could allow either a life of leisure or a work-obsessed existence in which every home activity but sleep takes care of itself.