At Home With Robots : Experts Developing Kindly Androids That Will Dust, Scrub, Vacuum and, Yes, Even Do Windows

Times Staff Writer

Roscoe has been working for almost a year as a nurse’s aide in the Danbury, Conn., hospital. He delivers meals from the dietary department to nursing units throughout the 450-bed facility, scooting through the corridors and onto the elevators with his load of meal trays.

The job is monotonous, but Roscoe doesn’t complain because he is a robot and in a cutting-edge career. Not only is he breaking barriers with his experimental hospital job, making his rounds without the help of wires or tracks, he also may be paving the way for the world’s ultimate robot: a versatile home servant.

Says his creator, a futuristic technology entrepreneur named Joseph F. Engelberger: “Our company is looking ahead to a robot that would be able to perform fundamental household tasks like clean the bathroom, scrub the floors, dust and vacuum.”

And yes, he says, it will do windows.


The notion of a home robot making its rounds with the Windex sprayer is a far cry from the early vision of the robot, which entered popular culture in the 1920s as a grim symbol of the dehumanized machine age. Throughout the 1930s, technocrats saw the robot as a metallic monster threatening millions of jobs, and science-fiction writers unleashed menacing extraterrestrial giants.

But, by the 1950s, Isaac Asimov’s short stories in “I, Robot” and other collections were endowing robot characters with human characteristics. Today, our collective robotic fantasies are measured against the kindly androids R2D2 and C-3PO, George Lucas’ classic creations in “Star Wars.”

Lucas was creating science fiction, but Engelberger’s vision is for real. With financial backing from a heavyweight group of home product manufacturers, his Transitions Research Corp. in Danbury is gearing up to produce a household servant by 1991, a “two-armed, mobile, sensate robot.”

The project is Engelberger’s passion. “We have studied all the demographics; we have done focus groups,” he said in a rapid-fire telephone conversation. “The full-scale, all-bells, all-whistles model is about 30 months in development, and we have some target markets.”


He predicts that Homebot will a big big-ticket consumer item in the 1990s. “You start with the innovators, not the conservative people. In 1991, the consumer will decide between getting another Mercedes or a robot. By 1997, the decision will be between a Volkswagen or a robot.”

That may sound like Orwellian fantasy, but Engelberger, known internationally as the “father of robots,” has a track record. After producing the world’s first industrial robots, starting in 1962, he sold his pioneer company (Unimation Inc.) to Westinghouse five years ago. Now he has moved into the service robot arena. And service is the buzzword these days in a fledgling industry whose technology is changing so fast that even attempts to define a robot can set off a debate.

“Service robots really is a new field,” said Jeffrey Burnstein of the 200-member National Service Robot Assn. in Ann Arbor, Mich. “We describe ourselves as an emerging industry, because what’s starting to develop is the useful application of the technology in several non-industrial areas.”

Few Service Robots Now

Burnstein defines the service robot as a “non-manufacturing robot--anything outside the factory. We don’t have a count, but right now there are very few service robots out there.” But, he added, there are lots warming up in the wings.

Some experimental service robots already are working at such daytime jobs as delivering office mail and such nighttime jobs as security patrolling of factories. And robotics engineers are exploring roles for robots in everything from flipping hamburgers to fighting fires, from assisting in brain surgery to cleaning up hazardous waste. By the 1990s, robots are expected to play major roles in space.

“These new service robot applications are what everyone is talking about,” said Doug Bonham of Michigan’s Heath Co., which manufactures two educational robots, of which Heath has sold 14,000, mostly to universities and vocational training centers. Hero I, a little like R2D2, is a 3-wheeled vehicle with a single arm and keyboard in the top. The Hero 2000 is larger, with an arm that has a sense of touch.

“The emphasis in the past,” said Bonham, “has been industrial robots, but at the robotics trade show this year the action was at the service robot pavilion.”


One of the major displays at that show was the new voice-controlled personal robot work station from Prab Robots Inc., long known for industrial robots. One of its new systems enables quadriplegics to have access to the telephone and, with a computer, a host of other outlets in the outside world. The second, still in development, is a computer and robot arm that provides a monitored exercise program for stroke victims.

“The advocates of service robots are a fanatical bunch: It’s almost like spreading the Gospel,” Bonham said. “The magic is back!”

‘Market Fizzled’

No one in the industry is more deeply imbued with spreading the message than Engelberger, who acknowledges that his enthusiasm for a personal home robot is not widely shared. “People have been discouraged about the idea of making a servant,” he said, noting that a small surge in marketing personal robots fizzled in the mid-1980s. “Everyone went broke,” he says flatly.

But the home robots of the 1980s were not practical, he maintains. With their high price tags (one model made the cover of the 1981 Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalogue) and limited repertoire of tricks and games, they were essentially expensive novelties, luxury guests in the family living room. In contrast, his TRC “Homebot” will earn its keep, Engelberger said. He envisions it as a high-tech butler that will prepare meals, clean the house, cut the grass, shovel snow and even fix household appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines. “It might even confer digitally by telephone with another robot,” he said thoughtfully.

The prototype for TRC’s prospective Homebot is Roscoe the Danbury Hospital nurse’s aide.

Roscoe (named by the hospital nurses who also made it a security badge like theirs) is a HelpMate robot, designed by TRC to fetch and carry on command. “Its goal is to support the nurses. It understands its way around the hospital,” said Engelberger. “We’ve been testing it since early this year, and we will introduce it next year.

“So that’s the beginning. To go beyond that, we have completed a study on how to make a robot become an honest-to-God servant. We’re doing this for six companies: Maytag, Johnson Wax, Electrolux of Sweden, Du Pont, Emhart and 3M. They’ve all paid to join the party. They all want to know how robots will affect their business.”


Two groups of would-be buyers head the target market list, according to Engelberger:

--High-income, technically advanced families--"the ones who got the first TV, the first VCR, the first compact disc player. They’re wealthy and they want a robot servant.”

--The affluent elderly, “who have the money to go into a life-care center but don’t want to. People 85 and older are the fastest growing group in the United States. They’d all like to live at home and they can’t.”

Initially, at least, Homebot and other such mechanized helpers would require a tailored environment. Simply put, the way you get one is to buy the house, which would come equipped with a robot “pantry” work station and other special equipment.

As part of ongoing research on the robotized home, Engelberger has been asking various upscale groups this question: “If you could build a new home tomorrow and could have a 24-hour servant built in, what would the addition be worth to you?” According to Engelberger, company presidents, on the average, said $42,000. Manufacturing engineers said $39,000. The retired couples he asked said $47,000.

“They all saw benefits, and they had two major services of importance to them: cleaning--no one likes to clean the bathroom--and security,” Engelberger said. (The Homebot could attack burglars with a squirt of tear gas while calling the police, he said.)

Homebot is expected to sell for about $50,000 when it first appears on America’s doorstep. Not only will it be much more complex than HelpMate, it will differ in appearance. HelpMate is a 350-pound box with a host of sophisticated sensors such as vision, infrared and ultrasound that allow the robot to navigate on its own. Its appearance is consciously functional: designed to look appropriate in a hospital’s high-tech setting.

Voice Activation

Home robots, in contrast, while utilizing the technology, will be more anthropomorphic and voice-activated. Engelberger describes Homebot, visually, as a cross between R2D2 and C3PO. “It’s gonna live in your home with you--it’s got to be friendly.”

Although Homebot is still in the evolving stage, Engelberger has already named him “Isaac,” for Isaac Asimov, whose short stories inspired him. “I have been a futurist all my career. It really started in college--I studied physics at Columbia University, and I started reading Asimov in the early ‘50s.”

And he has been thinking about personal robots for a long time. In a 1985 book, “Robotics,” edited by Marvin Minsky, Engelberger contributed a chapter on his high-tech dream. Noting the increased sophistication of robotics technology, he wrote: “Before the end of the 1980s, that technology could be marshaled to create a household servant. The house will have to be redesigned to welcome the robot, just as we automated factories, but it will remain a comfortable home.”

Even in an industry churning with technological advance, the notion of a personal robot is viewed by many as impractical.

“You can design them not only to play the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ but to jig at the same time. But when you think of widespread utilization, it doesn’t make economic sense,” said Bela Gold, professor of technology and management at Claremont Graduate School.

But Dr. Mark Friedman, a research engineer at Carnegie-Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, applauds Engelberger’s zeal.

“Because of his track record with Unimation, he brings credibility to the field,” said Friedman, who heads the Human-Machine Interaction Lab.

A Practical Visionary

“Engelberger is both a visionary and one who implements. Traditionally we have viewed robots as replacements for people, but that’s only one view of how robots would fit into our society, our workplace, our lives.

“I think that humans and robots working together are the wave of the future.”

The next challenge, he thinks, is to get comfortable with the machines, to come to the understanding that they will not harm us. “The visionaries in the 1940s understood this: Science-fiction writers were looking at the consequences of the technology we didn’t even have yet,” said Friedman, who recalled Isaac Asimov’s “three laws of robots”:

1. The robot cannot injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. The robot must obey orders given by a human being, except when it would conflict with the first law.

3. The robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection doesn’t conflict with the first or second laws.

“Asimov didn’t worry about the technology--he assumed it would come. He said, ‘Let’s worry about people and machines--what it would be like.’ I don’t think he was far off the mark.”