Robots are already being used to build cars, perform surgeries and look after the elderly, but domestic robots may be coming to a home near you faster than you imagined.
That’s because Amazon.com has set in motion a “top-secret” plan to build a robot for the home, according to a stunning new report from Bloomberg. The project — already several years old — is being run out of Lab 126, a division of the company known for creating products like the Echo and the Kindle.
Known as “Vesta,” the domestic robot project is in the midst of a hiring frenzy that could result in a purchasable product as early as next year, Bloomberg reported. The robots’ potential skill set remains unknown, but the machine could behave like a “mobile Alexa,” the virtual assistant developed by Amazon.
(Amazon.com chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Bloomberg reports that prototypes of the robot include cameras and software that allow the robot to navigate a home, leading some to speculate that Vesta will function like a roving Alexa.
We’re still years, perhaps decades, away from Rosey, the iconic housekeeper from “The Jetsons,” according to Siddhartha S. Srinivasa, a professor of robotics at University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.
How long exactly, is impossible to predict, he said. That’s because he expects robotics innovation to continue unfolding along a ramp, with gradual advances in ability and functionality abetted by unexpected breakthroughs experts can’t foresee. “The Holy Grail,” Srinivasa said, is the robot that not only moves around, but physically interacts with the world around it.
“Rosey is not a passive observer of the universe, she’s an active participant,” he said. “It’s maddening how hard that is to create. Just getting a robot to pick up a coffee mug is incredibly hard while being incredibly easy for humans.”
The challenges ahead are many. Among the big ones, Srinivasa foresees: designing homes that are compatible with robot movements. It’s much easier to design a robot that moves around a factory floor, he said, than it is to design one that can sidestep an ever-changing landscape of dirty clothes piles and children’s toys.
Next up: Creating a robot that offers meaningful interactions with humans inside the home, adjusting to cultural differences and social norms. Understanding how human behavior differs from household to household, Srinivasa said, is “incredibly hard problem” that researchers are still unpacking.
Finally, he said, companies like Amazon will have to tackle to privacy questions that arise when a robot enters a home and begins collecting data — a more sensitive version of the questions currently swirling around tech companies like Facebook. People are much more protective of their homes than any other space, he said.
“But I’m actually incredibly hopeful and confident, particularly when it comes to robots being used for assisted care,” he said, noting that the supporting technology for robots is moving at a rapid pace. “My hope is that they’ll be a useful physical robot in the assistive care domain in the next 10 to 15 years.”
Amazon is uniquely positioned to develop a domestic robot because their business model already tracks customer purchases inside homes and some of their products already include voice recognition. Amazon may be one of the first prominent tech companies to seriously embark on the quest for a domestic robot, but the tech giant already has competition.
One of the most popular displays at the Consumer Electronics Show Las Vegas this year was Aeolus Robot, a child-size machine that wowed onlookers by performing domestic duties such as mopping, picking up stuffed animals off the floor and moving furniture. The robot was even able to retrieve drinks from the fridge using an intricate-looking grabbing arm — a deft move that occurred without human assistance.
Aeolus may have cleaning skills, but the makers of Pepper — a doe-eyed robot on wheels from SoftBank Robotics — claim their machine possesses the ability to read people’s emotions by deciphering facial movements vocal tones.
There’s also Jibo, a 12.5-inch-tall stay-at-home robot that can help out around the house, tell you the weather or answer trivia questions.
“He can also dance and tell some pretty corny jokes,” according to CNET, which calls Jibo a “social robot” with “limited functionality.”