Robots advance, consumers stall
More robots are in the marketplace but a 'Frankenstein complex' prevents their wide acceptance, among other things.
Fifty-one years after the first commercial robot went to work, the United States is approaching a tipping point: Within a decade, observers say, the average American household will include one or two simple robots. And though they may not look like the ones imagined in science fiction, these robots – some available now – will play pervasive roles in the lives of regular consumers, says Lee Gutkind, author of "Almost Human: Making Robots Think."Skip to next paragraph
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Especially after the past decade's technological breakthroughs and continuing research, robots are primed to enter the consumer marketplace. "There are still a number of hard problems to be solved, but we've solved some of the fundamental problems," says Paolo Pirjanian, chief scientist at Evolution Robotics Inc., in Pasadena, Calif.
But as roboticists prepare to unleash their creations, they're confronted with a hurdle perhaps more daunting than the technical ones they've already cleared: consumer readiness – which includes such factors as skepticism, unrealistic expectations, confusion about what makes a robot, and a "Frankenstein complex," or the fear of robots.
Though the emergence of consumer robotics will probably affect society at large, their coming does not foreshadow an invasion of sass-talking robots into your homes anytime soon, despite the exotic portrait of robots painted in literature and film. "Robotics is probably going to find its way into our daily lives in very subtle ways – without the explicit form factor of R2-D2 and C-3P0, which is what we think of when we think of robots," says Mr. Pirjanian, referring to the quirky droids of "Star Wars" fame.
Cameras that recognize and auto-focus on human faces, automated telephone operators, and adaptive cruise control are just a few examples of the robotic technologies on the market that most people don't associate with robots.
So what is a robot? "The classic definition is something that senses its environment, decides what to do, and then acts on that decision," says Todd Jochem, head of Applied Perceptions, a robotics company that specializes in unmanned vehicle software. Something as simple as a vending machine could be called a robot.
"Technology usually intrudes in fairly measured ways, incremental ways," explains Matt Mason, director of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Though most people already use and even interact with robots, they probably don't recognize it as such. "Even though the technology is making a big difference, people are still asking the question 'When will I have a robot in my home?' " says Dr. Mason.
While Americans seem to have little problem with their unknowing interactions with robots, dealing with a product that is clearly an automaton exposes some of the mental barriers that may slow the adoption of consumer robots in the US.
Take, for example, the Roomba, a simple, disk-shaped vacuuming robot created by iRobot. For the cost of a normal vacuum ($120 to $450, depending on the Roomba model), a consumer can buy a robotic floor cleaner that requires zero programming and even knows when to charge itself. Roomba owners simply push a button, and the robot takes care of the rest.
Yet after four years on the market, only 1 to 2 percent of American householders have felt compelled or comfortable entrusting a robot with something as banal as vacuuming. Though the sale of over 2.5 million household robots has been a success for iRobot, it's still a far cry from market saturation.
The problem? In many cases, it simply sounds too good to be true. People often question if the Roomba really works or if it's just some elaborate scam. "There's a mental barrier," says Helen Greiner, chairwoman and cofounder of the iRobot Corporation in Burlington, Mass. "[Roomba] is small, it's about the same cost as a vacuum, so [most people ask] 'What's the catch here?' I think there's a natural, potentially healthy skepticism."
Robots in pop culture: 'Terminator'
"From a psychological or emotional point of view," says author Gutkind, American society is "much further away" from the notion of most people owning a robot. "People are not quite ready to turn over the daily chores of their lives – and the important chores – to machines."
Robots in your new car
As robotic technologies – billed as high-tech gadgets, not robots – quietly make their way into the consumer marketplace, new car owners are among the first users try them out in the form of popular features such as:
Adaptive cruise control: Perhaps the closest consumer technology available to unmanned vehicles, adaptive cruise control uses radar sensors to watch for cars ahead of the driver and adjusts the speed to maintain a set following distance.
Automated parallel parking: The dreaded parallel parking test may become a thing of the past for student drivers. Several cars now offer an automated system that allows drivers to select the parking space on an LCD screen, position the car next to the spot, and then let the car take care of the rest.
Collision detection: When the system senses a pending crash, it alerts the driver, tightens seat belts, and moves the headrests forward to reduce whiplash.