Want a Robot to Clean Your House? You'll Have to Wait a While Longer

Video screen capture. Human-Centered Robotics Lab / YouTube

If you grew up watching the Jetsons, the idea of having a robot helper that cleans and cooks for your family has always been a fantasy. People want to have a robot do the housework and the good news is that great minds are working on it.

Elon Musk announced back in June that his OpenAI robotic institute was working on developing software that would enable off-the-shelf robots to do household chores and various other engineers are working on robots that could accomplish cleaning and organizing tasks.

The bad news is that experts say not to expect these robots in our homes any time soon.

“Cleaning is different from other tasks we’ve thought about in robotics, which [have] typically involved manipulating objects, or moving them place to place,” said Maya Cakmak, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, to MIT Technology Review.

Cakmak is working on a cleaning robot with help from a large grant from the National Science Foundation and said that to accomplish household chores, robots have to know the right tool for each specific task, the right angle to hold each tool, how to move it, how much pressure to use, how fast to move and more. Think about the variety of tools and techniques you use just to clean your kitchen. It's much more complicated than just lifting objects and moving them.

Cakmak is teaching robots in her lab through demonstrating cleaning techniques for the robot's vision system. The robot then imitates the cleaning motion using aquarium crystals as "dirt." The goal is to get the robot to learn the correct cleaning motion and for it to be able to determine if the surface is clean after the action.

Even when that is accomplished, there's a long way to go. In order for a robot to clean an entire house, it would have to be able to fully understand its environment and make decisions based on the state of each room -- something that is beyond the current abilities of artificial intelligence. Cakmak says that she believes houses will also have to be redesigned with machines in mind so that robots can better identify their position within a home and move around in it.

Looks like we'll have to stick with our Roombas while we wait on a Rosie. You can watch a video of Cakmak's amazing robot training below.