It might not yet seem like we’re living in a futuristic cybernetic society, but in many ways we already are. Industrial robots, for example, have revolutionized entire business sectors since first being implemented in the 1970s. Autonomous vehicles are just starting to make an appearance on city streets. However, for most people, the true crossing point will be having access to mobile, autonomous service robots in the home.
But what keeps today’s robots confined to laboratories and factory floors? Until recently, it has been mobility and autonomy. Many of these technological hurdles have been overcome, and innovation continues at a frenetic pace – robots now enjoy groundbreaking accuracy at identifying real-world objects in 3D.
These developments point to a robot-filled future that is inching closer by the day. The game-changing moment will be the moment when home service robots become an economically feasible investment – both for manufacturers and for consumers. This could happen in as little as five years if the right economic conditions are met – or as many as twenty if not.
The Economy of Home Service Robots
At the moment, robots are prohibitively expensive for home use. This situation is similar to that of early computing – a sentiment made famous by Thomas Watson, then-CEO of IBM, who is credited with one of the worst tech predictions of all time:
“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” – Thomas Watson, 1943
In a market environment where humanoid robots capable of doing home chores cost $400,000, it’s unreasonable to expect widespread adoption just yet. However, experts are already making compelling arguments for the use of robots in specific residential contexts – such as for quadriplegics and people with similar medical needs.
It is almost certain that robotics will meet these peoples’ special needs before becoming everyday household items. The economic incentives are greater, as is the ability for this technology to help improve the quality of peoples’ lives – no consumer is going to spend $400,000 on a robot whose most helpful achievement is folding towels.
Nevertheless, consumers do want robots to cook, clean, and perform mundane tasks around the house. Once a manufacturer provides a robotic product at low enough cost to make the time saved worth the investment, an enormous brand-new industry will pop up overnight and begin to dominate existing home industries.
The great advantage of home service robots’ versatility and usefulness is that demand will be very high. The manufacturer who succeeds to offer value in this market can reasonably rely on making a few million sales, meaning that the per-unit price can be tantalizingly low – by robot standards.
The Argument for Renting Robots
While the home robots of the near-future will certainly be expensive, the market is likely to place a premium on rental and leasing agreements.
This is the argument Satyandra Gupta makes when considering the ways the first household robots will enter service. He assumes that a humanoid residential service robot will last five years and that the average American homeowner could be willing to pay between $200 and $500 per month for robotic assistance at home.
This would mean consumers pay between $5 and $10 per hour of time saved by having a household robot do general chores for 40 hours a week. Depending on the workload capacities and battery life of these robots, they could even work up to 80 or more hours per week.
Importantly, these figures rely on there being such a high demand for low-cost robotic home labor that manufacturers can depend on high-volume sales and bring their per-unit prices down to that level.
Current projections indicate that the home robot market will be similar to the automobile market from both the pricing and service life perspective, but with a few important high-tech differences:
- Independent Support and Service. There is significant incentive for robot manufacturers to include remote, wireless support services. Ideally, broken robots will be able to fix themselves by downloading the relevant software over the Internet, ordering hardware when needed, and installing it themselves.
- Greater Usefulness Over Time. The first generic household robots are likely to be little more than high-tech janitors in terms of their work capacities. However, there is no significant hardware difference between a robot designed to fold laundry and one that can perform high-value labor like cooking, entertaining, or repairing home utilities – it needs only to learn the task. It’s not yet clear whether this will happen through AI or through Internet-enabled software updates.
- Complete Personalization. To be effective, home service robots must be able to learn about their owners’ preferences and tastes. The extent to which they will be able to do so is potentially unlimited. This means that a run-of-the-mill home robot may be able to extensively customize itself to meet its owner’s wishes – to the point of adding personality traits, software packages or special hardware toolkits to itself.
Who Will Usher in the Home Service Robot Revolution?
Because progress in the world of robotics is enormously expensive, it cannot benefit from the same flurry of investment activity that the tech world is used to. Venture capitalists like software applications because they can produce enormous profits with relatively small initial investments, and software engineers can produce results relatively quickly.
Robotics, on the other hand, promises enormous profits only with enormous investment, and will only start turning profits after it becomes a mature industry, which could take decades. This means that only technology’s biggest, wealthiest names – Google, in particular – enjoy the position necessary to make that leap of faith. For now, all eyes remain on the tech giants as we wait for the next great push towards a robotic tomorrow.
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