Tuesday, December 10, 2013

When can we buy robots to help us with household chores?

Recently Google has been in the news for its buying spree of robotics companies. Many people are excited about this and believe that this will greatly accelerate robotics technology development and hopefully make robots ubiquitous in our lives.

This post is mainly focused on robots for homes. In a simplistic sense, home robot market can be divided into the following three categories: (1) robots helping with dull and tedious household chores, (2) robots taking on new roles in homes (e.g., education, entertainment, companionship), and (3) robots in assisted living communities. Each of these markets has different underlying economics. In this post, I will focus on the first category.  Specifically, I am interested in the following question:  When can we buy robots to help us with household chores?

Before answering this question, let me quickly summarize the societal implications of home robots that can help with household chores:
  • Home robots might save many marriages by reducing fights over household chores. I am sure that divorce lawyers will hate home robots!
  • Teens will have love-hate relationship with robots. Parents won’t need to nag teens for doing chores. But teens won’t be able to make money by doing chores. Cash-deprived teens will need to cut down on money they spend on music and movies. This might be bad for certain pop stars. So watch out Justin Bieber, home robots won’t be good for your album sales.
  • Home robots will dethrone pet animals from being the stars of viral YouTube videos. They might even spawn new reality shows on TV to depict new relationship dynamics at homes as new home robots join the family.  
  • Call centers with human workers will be needed to bail out robots in distress. Hopefully, this will create new jobs for humans. Perhaps auto clubs like AAA can start new robot clubs to assist robot owners.
  • People won’t have any sense of privacy inside their homes. Robots will be able to monitor your every move, so be careful of what you do at home. I am sure NSA folks will be very happy with the advent of home robots. They will finally have the ability to know what time you take showers. They already know everything else!   
  • Occasionally, home robots will be involved in accidents. I can already see insurance companies salivating at this new opportunity and design new products. Hopefully, your robot can answer the phone when telemarketers from insurance company call you to sell new robot insurance policies.    
Here is a partial list of chores performed inside homes that can benefit from robot assistants:
  • Help with laundry 
  • Load and unload dishwashers 
  • Do preparatory work for cooking meals (e.g., chopping vegetables)
  • Clean kitchen
  • Clean toilets and bathtubs
  • Pick up objects (e.g., toys, newspaper, clothes, sneakers)  from the floor and move them to the right location 
  • Unload groceries from the car parked in garage
  • Assemble furniture
  • Help with moving heavy objects
  • Answer phone when telemarketers call at the dinner time
The above list does not include tasks for which the robot will have to venture outside the home. For example, I did not include lawn maintenance and snow cleaning tasks. A robot working outside the home will need to be able to deal with a wide variety of weather conditions and safety issues. This is a lot harder problem to solve.

I also on-purpose did not include pet sitting and baby sitting in the above list. Some people believe that robots should be able to do these. I think that this will be a good idea for TV shows, but a terrible idea in real-life.      

A home robot will require significant in-home installation, regular monitoring, and servicing to keep it operational. You may need to robot-proof your home to make sure that the robot does not damage your home and your home does not damage your robot.

I think we should look at a leasing or a renting model instead of a buying model. In this model, people will rent the robot from a company for a monthly fee.  The company will take care of the installation, monitoring, and service. If the robot is stuck, it should be able to contact a call center. Hopefully, someone in the call center should be able to teleoperate it to get out of the jam.

So how much people are willing to pay in monthly fees for robots at home? Based on my preliminary estimate, people will be willing to pay $200 to $500 per month for renting a robotic assistant for home.  I believe that people will be willing to pay $5 to $10 per hour of labor saved.  So if a robot can save 40 hours of tedious chores per month, then people will be willing to pay $200 to $400 per month for the robot.

Let us assume that a well-designed robot will have a service life of five years.  So the home robot market looks a lot like automobile market from pricing and service life points of view. 

In order for robots to be able to do forty hours’ worth of useful chores in homes, a lot of new technology will need to be developed. I believe that this technology can be sold at $200 per month if there were few million customers.  So here is the catch: unless there is a large market, the desired robots cannot be offered at the right price. However, unless the useful technology is available at the right price, the large market simply won’t exist.

Unfortunately, incremental development of home robot technology and its introduction in markets will be extremely slow. We will need to meet or exceed forty hours per month of useful robotic chores at home to create a significant home market and associated infrastructure. In my opinion, realizing a home robot is technologically feasible, but it will require billions of dollars of investment in technology development to ensure the high level of reliability and safety for home use. Unfortunately, venture capitalists don’t like these kinds of markets. My hope is that a cash-rich company such as Google, Microsoft, or Apple will go after developing this technology and create a new industry.  

Cell phones were invented for people to talk, but they have found new roles such as music players, web browsers, email clients, etc. The revenue growth in the cell phone market came because of the new roles played by cell phones.   I believe that the same thing is likely to happen for home robots as well. Initially people will be interested in getting robots at home to help with the household chores, but soon they will find new uses for these robots. I believe that robots might find an easier path to become fixtures in people’s home by adopting new roles such as tutors (e.g., music instructor, golf instructor), personal trainers, and entertainers.  

So, when can we buy robots to help us with household chores? If a cash-rich company like Google, Microsoft, or Apple goes after this technology, then we might have these robots before the end of this decade. Otherwise, we may need to wait for a while.