Are home robots useful dedicated housemaids?



Kya deLongchamps looks at the breakneck speed of advances in robotics and the ‘internet of things’ but wonders if it’s just more smoke and mirrors....

Kuri at 51cm high, is closer to our science fiction fantasies of home robots mimicking human behaviour and is priced at around €660.

Do we need a smug, plastic bollard on the kitchen counter to tell us it’s raining and take a memo? What happened to engaging the brain, looking out the window and sticky notes glommed onto the fridge door?

Seems that’s all a little passe as prototype all singing- and-dancing robots, ready to launch to market as willing domestic darlings, have been presented by both LG and Sony at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January.

For my money, the Xperia Agent launched in 2016, though adorable with its gentled Dalak form, is simply an extension of smart phone entertainments that are already turning our brains to porridge.

Amazon Echo device interacts with users verbally through the AI voice of Alexa. It provides information, answer questions, plays music and can check the weather and it can also be used as an interface for controlling IoT devices.

The unit, if and when it does become available, is an armless, harmless cutesy host, that perks and spins to the voice, linking social media profiles, and streaming music and content from your phone apps. 

Adorable — but for many of us jaded adults mashing clothes into the washer at 11pm, and stirring tomorrow’s stew— completely uninteresting.

I mean, Xperia Agent can put on the heating outside the parameters of the set thermostat controls — but isn’t that covered by apps from Eir and other providers?

If Wikileaks’ latest bombshell release last week is to be believed, the CIA may be listening through our televisions, iPhones and Alexa and Siri applications as it is — so do they now have the potential for covert cameras trained on us too? Ridiculous maybe, but as yet not officially denied.

The Ring doorbell, has recently been joined by the German made Door Bird. Both devices allow you to answer the phone by intercom whether you are at home or away, expecting a parcel or dodging an irritating neighbour. The 180° infrared motion sensor will pick up live time images of the visitor and instantly set off an alarm if you choose to. Ring is great value for a Wi-Fi enabled video doorbell streaming live audio & video, operating through your phone or tablet. €199 including a micro USB cable. Suppliers include Door Bird €349-€999 (for video doorstations), has a great video demo online.

Meanwhile, Sony’s CEO, Kazuo Hirai, has made it known in interviews that articulated humanoid Sony artificial intelligence is on the way and the company RD department is hard at work.

Korean electronicgiant LG presented a squat little white mobile Hub Robot at CES with large glowing blue eyes, which promises to at least connect all the fuzzy logic behind its Bluetooth enabled hobs, ovens and fridges. 

(I strongly suspect these are wireless speakers above all, that once a grown-up kicks one smartly across the floor and it bleats out ‘excuse me’, it will be relegated to the teenage den with a great deal of roaring.)

Voice commands are being expanded to responses to nods and arm waves, hilarious potential for households with animated pets, and mischievous children. LGs Airbot seems certain for success.

A larger version of the home helper, it can not only give out information, but bring you to your gate or desk if you are lost. Now that’s intelligent.

This may well be worth the money over the nine lives of even a single housebound cat. The Litter-Robot III Open Air Automatic Self-Cleaning Litter Box offers a large, ergonomic entry and litter chamber along with a self-adjusting cat sensor accommodating all feline waistlines. It sifts clumps and waste out of the litter seven minutes after a cat uses it and drops the grot into a receptacle drawer and any bin bag. A bit hefty, but if the whiff is killing you, try a 90-day money back trial. €539,

For latchkey teens and helicopter guardians, Kuri, a robot proposed by Bosch this year, will demand that able youngsters get in a window to escape detection. 

It monitors the arrival of the kids (or anyone else) when they come through principal exterior doors, contacting parents through the all powerful electronic leash.

According to Mayfield Robotics, creators of Kuri, it includes some hair-raising talents and can “understand context and surroundings, recognise specific people, and respond to questions with facial expressions, head movements, and unique lovable sounds – a spark of life to any home”. It even displays LED “moods.” Yikes.

Gliding around the floor rather than parked, Kuri at 20”/51cm high, is closer to our science fiction fantasies of home robots mimicking human behaviour and is actually priced for US consumers now (if not here yet) at about €660. Still, just information toys, not domestic muscle.

Again, I would question the redundant repetition for those whose homes are already enjoying wireless technology that works well and costs a lot less. 

Nest. The Learning Thermostat from this brilliant company is a must have for every home, its attractive cabochon featuring just enough Wi-fi convenience and communication through our mobile devices and saving you money daily. The decorative ring now comes in stainless steel, copper, black and white. €249. The Nest Protect, smoke & Co Alarm is potentially lifesaving and blessedly discreet with a built in night light and colour coded information. Ideal as a wedding gift a t €110. Security cameras from €120,

Security and remote child-minding is already covered by a range of dutiful 360 view cameras from Nest, Logi Circle and Netgear with cloud data storage.

Sony and LG do suggest a number of robot underlings along with the main unit, allowing you to stalk your brood/spouse/pet through the house. Making movies of hilarious antics committed during your absence that can be posted instantly to Facebook, are suggested.

A rabbit eating a raspberry is one thing, but what about when 16 -year old Dympna brings Declan home for a cuddle and you temporarily lose your reason — let’s shame the brat on Instagram!

Where do the traditional gifts of respect and trust stop and over-bearing control begin? 

Robots that take the drudgery out of vacuuming and cutting the grass, deserved their almost certain success, but is there something more sinister here? Shortcuts that undercut the competence, complexity and social interaction that makes us up?

Dedicated software devices or sophisticated, moving, grooving problem-solvers will bring many consumers to this new face of information technology with its cheerful spin and bob, and the promise of customisation.

For autonomous, dedicated chore killers, the robot vacuum and lawnmower are already proven, positive additions to the home, if you can afford them. Prices inevitably go down however, and a few years and market competition has made them more widely available. In intelligent mapping mowers the Husqavarna Automower 315 is a cut above (€1,850 and iRobot Roomba 616 vacuum still sucks up the competition, €399,

The latter is something that will mean everything to technophiles, and absolutely nothing to the rest of us. Alexa’s silky voice has changed everything. 

She’s the closest thing to a willing servant most of us have ever experienced, even if it’s only to find a 1980s track or to recall the name of Napoleon’s horse at the Battle of Waterloo.

We can bark ‘shut-up Alexa’ without danger of judgement. (Amazon Echo Dot, needed for this app - €70) and the buzz words in the industry, as these wired creatures develop apace, are ‘contextual’ and ‘conversational’.

The LG Hub Robot will respond to whatever voice activation app you choose, offering a hint of real personality, something that fits not only your wired or wireless network, but your thought patterns.

It’s a mistake to buy anything expensive in the vanguard moment of something that’s so wholly new, in general, and for now, the benefits beyond a spinning desk toy seem slim.

Designed for year by year upgrades and certain redundancy as the technology responds to what consumers find they really need (quite probably reverting, as now to — music, security and a limited degree of appliance interfaces), early robots will doubtless end up orphaned to the classified ads.

Kickstarter is crowded with robot start-ups like Buddy, the protecting, grinning metre tall ‘friend’ with motorised arms — €923 complete. Spending too much and too early for synthetic sentient company and entertainment? Who’s the robot now?

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