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."
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."
Trusting robots to care for humans in even simple ways is a terrifying idea to many in the US, say roboticists. Just look at American popular culture. The vast majority of robot-themed movies follow the pattern of man makes robot, robot becomes smarter than man, robot destroys man. Think "Westworld," "Terminator," the Matrix trilogy, and the film adaptation of "I, Robot."
"If you look at Japan, the robot is a friend there," explains Louis Ross, speaking about people's perceptions of robots. "In the US, a robot kills someone," says Mr. Ross, president of Virtus Advanced Sensors, a company that makes inertial sensors for robots in Pittsburgh.
Like many technological changes, a generational shift may be required to bring about large-scale acceptance of robots. Children are among the first to test new robotic innovations; often roboticists debut developments in toys because it's a more forgiving market. If the new technology fails, the consequences are far less severe than if it were to malfunction in a military application.
"Children play with [robots] and, as they get older, they won't be as threatened," says Ross.
Beyond making mechanized helpers a normal part of the everyday experience, robotic toys can provide the next generation with realistic expectations of what a robot is and what it can do.
"So far, our perception has been shaped by science-fiction movies. And the public's expectation of what the robots can and should do far exceeds the technical ability of today's robots," says Sarjoun Skaff, cofounder of robotic toy company Bossa Nova Concepts in Pittsburgh. These perceptions create the type of people who distrust a machine like the Roomba.
"By giving children the experience of operating robots that may not be as skilled as science-fiction robots, we calibrate their expectation of what robotics is and this will lead to robotics being more accepted by the public," says Mr. Skaff.
Many roboticists have tried to avoid public suspicion and unrealistic demands by marketing their innovations as "gadgets," not "robots."
"If you're doing a robotics project, you never use the word 'robot,' " says Mr. Jochem. Even though his company, Applied Perceptions, deals mostly with robotics, the organization made a conscious decision not to include any derivative of the word "robot" in its name.
Robots will creep into our lives
As robotic technologies gradually creep into daily life, Jochem says people will care less about whether it's a robot and just accept it as a useful tool or appliance.
Even if roboticists manage to overcome the general public's unease, they'll still need to find a way to simplify their applications so the kind of person who struggles to connect a DVD player to their TV could learn to use it with limited instruction.
"How do you make these really complex tools so easy to use that you don't need a manual, so you can turn it on and it's very intuitive?" asks roboticist Aaron Edsinger, a postdoctoral associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. If this doesn't happen, Dr. Edsinger says, only "hard-core technology people" will use robots.
Edsinger's research project – Domo, a robot capable of adapting to its environment and shelving a variety of objects – has the potential to have a profound impact on consumer robotics, such as robots capable of navigating the ever-evolving clutter of someone's kitchen. But for now it's still too complex for kitchens outside the MIT labs.
As roboticists like Edsinger tackle challenges like these, Gutkind hopes they won't forget whom they're building the robots for.
"The people who are creating robots ... should literally be sitting and chatting with the people whom their product will one day affect on a one-to-one basis," says Gutkind. "It is kind of unfair for robotics to become pervasive without giving the community the opportunity to choose how they want to interact with robots and how they don't want interact with robots."