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Lazy at home or the myth of the advent of household robots

A little like the flying car, engineers promise us mountains and wonders to free us from household chores. Especially women, who carry out 72% of these tasks according to INSEE. But, like Sister Anne, we see little or nothing coming. Admittedly, the robot vacuum cleaner, like the well-known Roomba from iRobot, is enjoying some success. But, with some 220,000 devices of this type sold in France per year, according to Gfk, this remains modest.

Only 3% of French people are equipped with a robot vacuum cleaner. It is true that, despite undeniable optimizations made over the years, one can wonder about the real efficiency, between obstacles not always well managed and random mapping of the rooms to be cleaned. “I thought this idea was brilliant at first. Go home and find a nickel floor. But I became disillusioned after two months when, one evening, I discovered that my cat had decided to defecate outside the litter box. The robot had spread all this in my living room and the adjoining kitchen. Since then, I only turn it on if I can watch it, which limits its interest”testifies Ali.

Combine agility and intelligence

Because, if robots continue to fascinate, and we are moved by the impressive and disturbing innovations of the American company Boston Dynamics – such as its headless robot-dogs – our expectations are still far from being satisfied. 3D printing a cupcake, technology already knows how to do it. But cooking stuffed tomatoes or a mushroom omelet with the right seasoning is a whole different matter. Not only the robot that will be able to do this will have to be agile, but also intelligent. The magic combo.

For a robot, adapting is something extremely complicated.

Nicolas Spatola

Doctor in social and cognitive psychology and teacher at Sciences Po

At CES in Las Vegas in 2021, Samsung presented a multi-tasking robot for the household. Called Handy, it has an articulated arm and can, in theory at least, fill the dishwasher as well as serve a glass of wine or store groceries in the cupboards. For this, the bot uses artificial intelligence to recognize the shape and material of the objects it grabs. Indeed, the gripping force should not be the same whether it is a ceramic plate, a metal saucepan, a packet of crisps or a silicone cake mold.

Home helpers who remain not very credible

Handy seems super efficient and practical for those who are lazy to pick up their dirty laundry, sort the shopping or clean up. But all this remains very theoretical. And it’s no coincidence that Samsung has never revealed a launch date for its food processor. Nor its price, for that matter. “There are still many hurdles for this to become a reality, assures Nicolas Spatola, doctor in social and cognitive psychology and teacher at Sciences po. Not all houses are made the same, not all use the same utensils, etc. However, for a robot, adapting is something extremely complicated. Driving an autonomous car on a road with standardized markings is simpler than driving a household robot in a private environment with a totally random layout. »

Also, robots are often trained to do only one type of task. Handy can grab and manipulate objects. But he is incapable of vacuuming, cooking a dish or cleaning the corners of a shower. This means that a new robot would have to be equipped for each household task to be carried out. Knowing that their prices are prohibitive to say the least. Handy’s price has not been disclosed but it is estimated at more than ten thousand euros. A competitor with fairly similar capabilities, the Aeolus robot, will cost $20,000 if it ever hits the market.

Ugo, a robot imagined by the Japanese Mira Robotics and which can extend and fold the laundry, was announced at 16,000 dollars by its manufacturer. The Foldimate, the Israeli robot that does only one thing, fold the laundry, is sold for 900 euros. The Yardroid, which can mow the lawn, water the plants and pour weedkiller costs around 2,500 euros. If we had to combine all this – and much more –, the note would not only be salty, but we would also need a dwelling large enough to store all these little people. Hard to imagine in a city apartment, for example.

Household robots: the question of responsibility

Another obstacle stands in the way of the emergence of domestic robots, and it is legal this time. The British University of Cambridge, for example, has explored the field of intelligent articulated arms capable of preparing food. Led by researcher Fumiya Iida, a team has developed robots capable of cutting, mixing and cooking food. Objective: to make an omelette, a very simple dish, but also complicated to succeed in order to obtain the right cooking and the right seasoning.

If the challenge is great – how to get a robot to “taste” a dish to estimate the right saltiness or “scan” an ingredient to recognize if it is an apple or an orange, for example –, there remains the question of liability in the event of an accident. “If the robot fails and burns down part of the apartment it is in, legally, whose fault is it?asks Nicolas Spatola. Will it be the responsibility of its owner, the designer of the robot, the engineer? » As with autonomous vehicles, if they have an accident or run over a pedestrian, the authorities must decide this question.

Another blocking point: all these robots require very specific components to be manufactured. “The issue of metal availability is real. As for electric cars, computers or smartphones, you need copper, nickel, germanium, manganese, cobalt… So many metals that are increasingly used, but which only exist in limited quantities. on earth “recalls Nicolas Spatola.

A robot at home, really?

The question of the adoption of these robots also remains to be proven. Admittedly, the idea is a good one: no longer having to put away your clothes, your shopping, clearing the table… But there is still a big gap between theory and practice. “We see it in South Korea and Japan, where robots are more accepted than elsewhere. We see it in shopping malls, for example, but it remains very marginal in homes. In the end, there is a lack of interest”emphasizes Nicolas Spatola.

As for gastronomy, there as in France, the subject occupies a great importance and the fact of cooking is not perceived as a daunting task by many inhabitants. “And if you want a quick dish, rather than equipping yourself with a food processor, you just have to leave your home to get food at the supermarket or at the local restaurant, or even have it delivered”, notes the researcher. Especially since human behavior is such that, even with a home cooking robot that could prepare a dish on demand, nothing says that the ingredients in the fridge will tempt you in the evening…

For tasks without much added value, such as cleaning or hanging out the last laundry, the interest in outsourcing these tasks is greater. But, given the cost of robots and their limited flexibility, the option of having another human being take care of them – a cleaning man or woman – is still the easiest. “It’s also a question of society: do we prefer to make everything robotic or give jobs to people? »

Useful robots in certain areas

But then, should we forget all the domestic robots? Nicolas Spatola disagrees. “There is a real interest in helping people. For example, in Japan, they imagined a robot with the head of a teddy bear called Riba which helps people with reduced mobility in their journeys to the hospital. He takes care of supporting them in what are called transitions, that is to say, for example, when you get up from bed to go and sit in an armchair not far away. The lack of hospital staff means that it is not always easy to manage because it takes people to lift an individual. A robot, on the other hand, can take care of these complicated manipulations, under the supervision of a person, of course. »

Similarly, installing a robot that can compensate for the lack of carers in an elderly person to monitor that everything is going well and alert in the event of a problem could be of real use. More than a bipedal robot that would fetch us a cold beer from the fridge when we’re slumped on the couch. Even if we will always dream of it.