"Twenty years ago they said robots would be in every household in 20 years," laments an acquaintance with seven children. "It's the only thing that's kept me going, knowing that one of these days I could get a robot to help with the housework--so where are they?"
The robots are coming. They are already being used in manufacturing, with some predicting that robots will eventually take over most of the dangerous, dirty jobs that lead to workers'-compensation claims and complaints to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. A few robots deliver mail and wander the halls of office buildings, and at least two are being touted for home use as a sort of butler. One showed up on television washing windows.
Another "can be equipped to be a versatile, mobile, state-of-the-art robot capable of vacuuming, entertaining and providing home security without need for human monitoring," according to its manufacturers. When it gets tired, it eases up to a wall plug and recharges itself. If you buy the arms, the robot will take your guests' coats or lift packages, so long as they don't weigh more than five pounds. It will even talk to you or detect smoke and intruders, and you can hook it up to your home computer.
But is this the machine a mother of seven, or a spouse of one, needs around the house?
Maybe. Vacuuming is certainly a chore, although one must question whether it is the greatest problem confronting today's homeowners. It isn't mine, and perhaps before the market is flooded with these beasts it would be useful to let manufacturers know what a truly useful machine would do.
How about a librarian robot? The only times our books are in a remote semblance of order is just after we've moved. Then the books go up on the shelves sorted nicely by category or arranged by author, which lasts until somebody needs to read one. Once, after we returned home to find that one spring-loaded set of bookshelves had erupted books all over the living room, we invited a librarian over to dinner. By the end of the evening his training had overcome sloth and the books were all neatly arranged on the offending shelves--but this method worked only once.
Seems to me a robot could help here, roaming unattended to each pile of books on the floor, the windowsill, the table, and carrying them in five-pound loads to the shelves. With a little work, our home computer could print up little labels and we could do the whole damned library by the Dewey Decimal System!
Then there are papers. Newspapers, press releases, magazines, bills, Christmas cards that lie around until March, bills, receipts, letters, bills . . . I don't know what to do with them all. My husband doesn't know what to do them all. The woman who tries to create order out of chaos for us puts them in piles on the windowsill, on the floor, on the table. Just reading them, let alone filing them, makes a head swim--but the 4-foot-6 fiber glass robot being touted has a microprocessor for a head. Seems to me it could be kept quite busy reading, organizing and storing all that paper. If it wanted to copy some of it into the computer, that would be okay. Better still, it could pay off some of the bills as a friendly, helpful gesture.
These are other things the robot could do. How about the laundry? The dry cleaner is just around the corner, and our building has an elevator. I could give the thing a spare set of house keys if it would take the woolens in on a regular basis. When it got back, it could run a few loads of towels and sheets, fold them neatly and put them back in the closet. Maybe it could have a special sock-finding subprogram built in!
Which brings us to another recurrent problem. Why shouldn't a robot do better than I at finding room in the closets and dressers for all those clothes that don't seem to get hung up? They're light--it could handle them--and when done it could line up all the shoes in neat rows or put them back on their trees.
The kitchen, of course, is the heart of the home. We have already been told that dull, stolid, nonmoving home computers can help plan meals and make out shopping lists. All we have to do is type in every recipe we use, plus the nutrient content of all foods, plus an up-to-the-minute inventory of all the food in the cupboards and the refrigerator. Why not have the robot do it?
If it can detect burglars, can't it detect a nearly empty jar of peanut butter or a jug of milk turning sour? And why stop at a printout? I'd happily give the robot a ride to the store if it would do the shopping, since it would no doubt remember that we're out of toilet paper instead of getting totally sidetracked by a sale on chicken.
It could calculate the amount of space remaining in the freezer, thus preventing those avalanches of frozen peas and orange juice. It could interview family members, storing in its memory such observations as "We've had meat loaf 10 times in the last month, and if she serves it again, I'm moving out" . . . "If I have to eat Brussels sprouts, I'll throw up" . . . "Why don't we ever have Oreo cookies?"
This would serve two purposes: save the sanity of the overburdened homemaker and save her dependents from such traumatizing outbursts as, "If you say one more word, you'll be grounded for a month!" Alternatively, the robot could be programmed to say such things.
And how about nagging? A basic program could be included that each owner could modify as needed. "If I've told you once, I've told you 10 times to wipe your feet before you come into the house" . . . "Did you pay the electric bill this month? They said if it didn't arrive by the 10th, they'd cut off the power" . . . "Do you have your lunch money?" . . . "Have you done your homework" . . . "When is that term paper due?" . . . "Have you flossed your teeth today?"
The point here is that robots could indeed be helpful in the home as well as in heavy industry. But I can greet my own guests, I can hang their coats up, and I am perfectly happy with our $20 smoke detector. I need a machine that will do what I'm not good at--and for $8,000, I think I should get it.