From the Jetsons' Rosie to Richie Rich's Irona to Robby of Forbidden Planet, we've been promised digital domestics that look and act a lot like . . . a maid. But that isn't going to happen anytime soon, robot experts say. The problem? Today's machines are a long way from having the anthropomorphic qualities-above all, sight-found in human help.
The problem once seemed solvable enough: Connect a camera to a computer, and bingo!-robot eye. But true perception is much tougher than it looks. "We're making progress," says Sebastian Thrun, director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, "but getting machines to replicate our ability to perceive and manipulate the world remains incredibly hard."
For now, the field of at-home robots isn't even close. Although the market for personal and service robots has nearly doubled since 2002, your Roomba isn't going to bake you cupcakes or wash your dishes.
Most likely to yield an automated housekeeper is radio-frequency identification (RFID), which would allow the robot to converse with inanimate objects. Working off a wireless network, it might approach a cold drink and transmit this kind of information:
Robot: Who are you?
Drink: I´m a bottle of milk. This is how you pick me up.
Robot: Anything else I should know?
Drink: I expire in three weeks. Please recycle me when I´m finished.
Kevin Ashton, vice president of ThingMagic.com, a leading RFID company, says that instead of your spending hours cleaning up after a dinner party, a machine will take in the information provided by the pots and pans and put them where they "say" they need to be. "Combine this type of perception with robotics," he says, "and in the next 10 to 20 years we'll have our robot maid."
Today's best home robots prove that good, cheap help is still hard to find. Find three of the most promising potential robo-maids on the following pages: