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Why common home robots are still a long way off

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For example, robot vacuum cleaner users know to remove all small furniture and other obstacles such as cables from the floor, because even the best robot vacuum cleaner cannot remove them on its own. Even more challenging is that the robot has to work in the presence of moving obstacles when people and pets are within close range.

Although they seem simple to humans, many household tasks are too complex for robots. Industrial robots are ideally suited for repetitive actions where the robot movement can be preprogrammed. But household chores are often unique to the situation and can be full of surprises, forcing the robot to constantly make decisions and change its route to complete the tasks.

Think about cooking or washing dishes. Over the course of a few minutes of cooking, you could grab a sauté pan, a spatula, a stove knob, a refrigerator door handle, an egg, and a bottle of cooking oil. To wash a pan, you usually hold and move it with one hand while scrubbing with the other, making sure to remove any caked-on food residue and then rinse off any soap.

There has been significant development in recent years with the use of machine learning to train robots to make intelligent decisions when choosing and placing different objects, which involves grabbing and moving objects from one place to another. However, being able to train robots to master all different types of kitchen tools and home appliances would be a different level of difficulty, even for the best learning algorithms.

Not to mention that people’s homes often have stairs, narrow passageways, and high shelves. Those hard-to-reach spaces limit the use of today’s mobile robots, which tend to use wheels or four legs. Humanoid robots, which are more in keeping with the environments that humans build and organize for themselves, have yet to be used reliably outside of lab settings.

One solution to the complexity of tasks is to build special purpose robots, such as robot vacuum cleaners or kitchen robots. Many different types of such devices are likely to be developed in the near future. However, I believe that general purpose home robots are still a long way off.

Ayoga Hereid is an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Ohio State University.

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