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Who will bring Rosie the Robot to life?

Sections: Internet of Things, Smart Home

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shutterstock_118869730[1] copyIs Rosie the Robot finally a reality? Jibo, the world’s first “family robot,” wants you to think so.

A sidekick companion that can do ordinary robotic things, such as control your smart home and help you with email and phone calls, Jibo will also read your children bedtime stories, laugh at your jokes and take lots of lovely family photos.

Just like Rosie, the housekeeping robot from the cartoon series The Jetsons, Jibo has a heart, and she only costs $499. This robot will be “a member of your family,” claim its creators on Jibo’s Indiegogo page, but perhaps not a family member you’d want to give a hug to.

However, there is one crucial thing fictional Rosie did that real Jibo doesn’t: clean your house (although I suppose she could remind your husband to take out the trash). Granted, Jibo’s developers tout that her capabilities will expand over time. But, seeing as how she can only last 30 minutes on her battery and stands only two feet tall, my hopes that she’ll be doing all my housework before I hit retirement age are not high.

Despite the overarching concept of the Internet of Things being “finding simple tech solutions to everyday problems,” today’s “robots” show little sign of advancing to house-cleaning autonomy. The washing machine, the dishwasher and even the automatic vacuum cleaner (iRobot’s Roomba just celebrated its 12th birthday), are simply variations on their predecessors. Where is the revolution? When will the technology transform radically enough to give us a housecleaning robot?

Demand for service robots is at its highest ever, and global sales have grown six-fold in the past few years, yet our automated housecleaning options are limited to vacuum cleaners, dominated by iRobot’s suite of vacuuming, mopping and, most recently, scrubbing robots, a window cleaning robot and a gutter cleaning robot. Of all the things I worry about keeping clean in my home, windows and gutters are right at the very bottom of the list. But they are at the top of my husband’s.

My theory is that too many of the developers and engineers trying to solve this problem are men. If there were more women behind these products, we’d have a real Rosie by now — totally sexist, I know, but totally true. Jibo, the closest we’ve come to a Rosie, was created by social robotics pioneer Dr. Cynthia Breazeal.

Every year, pie-in-the-sky ideas come out of innovation competitions, such as the hugely appealing starfish-shaped Tody, who follows voice commands to clean floors, curtains, rugs and furniture, and the somewhat terror-inducing Mab, who shoots 980 tiny robots into your home to hunt down dirt. They certainly look awesome, and like something from the future, but will they do the ironing too?

The fundamental disconnect between this type of technology and cleaning is that cleaning isn’t cool. It’s about yucky stains, folding mountains of laundry and picking up tiny pieces of Lego before the vacuum cleaner chokes on them. Hardly sexy.

However, one company may have both the brains and the background to bring an actual Rosie to life: Dyson. The British engineering company, best known for its bag-less vacuum cleaners, just invested $8.4 million in a robotics lab with the express purpose of developing a domestic robot.

Dyson has been working on robotics for a long time. The company almost launched a robotic vacuum cleaner in 2001, the year before the Roomba debuted. But James Dyson pulled it at the last minute, saying it was too expensive and heavy.

“My generation believed the world would be overrun by robots by the year 2014,” said the 66 year-old Dyson in an interview with the BBC. “We now have the mechanical and electronic capabilities, but robots still lack understanding, seeing and thinking in the way we do. Mastering this will make our lives easier and lead to previously unthinkable technologies.”

The goal of the robotics lab, part of Imperial College London, is to create a generation of robots that, through vision systems, will intelligently react to changes because they understand the world around them.

“A truly intelligent domestic robot needs to complete complex everyday tasks while adapting to a constantly changing environment,” says Professor Andrew Davison, who heads up the lab. “We will research and develop systems that allow machines to both understand and perceive their surroundings — using vision to achieve it.”

Perhaps robots will soon have the ability to perceive that the laundry basket is overflowing and the dishwasher is full, and act on those perceptions. Now that would be a robot I would be happy to hug.

Jennifer Tuohy is a bona fide tech geekess who writes about consumer technology for eBay. While you wait for the next Rosie the Robot development, you can see eBay’s recent guide on how to buy a used Roomba (here). Follow Jennifer on Google+ and at eBay.

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