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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2006, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Why do not we have household robots?
For over a decade now I have argued that the technology is available to develop an able household robot; more particularly a robot caregiver for the elderly and infirm. No, I did not mean a one-function vacuum cleaner or a cuddly robot dog or a walking statue. Nor, to the other extreme, a Stepford wife. What is in the cards is a mobile, two-armed, sensate and articulate robot that can fetch and carry, cook and clean, aid ambulation and provide security. It would be on duty 24 h/day.
And, so cheap! Yes, preliminary design studies indicate a cost comparable to that of a luxury automobile, say a Mercedes. “What? Some say, who can afford a $45,000 robot? You must be nuts! A Mercedes is every old codger's apartment.”
Think, one can lease a Mercedes for $500/month, so too for a care giving robot. Or a fragile homebound individual can move to a nursing home at a cost of $5,000/month. Would not most old codgers prefer to stay at home? Moreover, what about “third party payers”? Government agencies and insurance companies would jump at the chance to provide elderly care at a fraction of the cost to Medicare, and so would some such around the industrial world. Gosh, we are all living too long!
A major barrier to the household robot is disbelief. The conventional wisdom is that it cannot be done and, if done, it would be too expensive. The crux for any robot to succeed is cost/benefit. If the benefit greatly exceeds the cost, acceptance is assured. It was so for industrial robots and it will be so for a homecare robot.
Too many researchers are making splinter efforts, providing single functions, which, while helpful, do not relieve the need for human support. A care giving robot must reduce the chores of loving relatives or visiting nurses to a couple of hours a day.
A second barrier is the blind conservatism of robot manufacturers and health care providers. Why gamble on a development effort when our competition is not doing so?
There is no rational or cultural advantage to any entity for getting on with the job. Just the fear of being a failed pioneer. The development cost is modest. My estimate is $3,000,000 and 27 months. Sure, then there would be investment in manufacturing and marketing, but with the stimulus of a vast market.
How about misconceptions? “You cannot teach an old dog new tricks.” Baloney! Old folks today have become adept at internet and e-mail. They will take to a robotic servant with warmth and hope. Our surveys showed elderly handicapped people would clamor for a robot companion at their beck and call, with no back-talk.
Well then, skip the establishment. Go to the investment community. Oh, I have tried that. After a presentation, the first question is, “Who else is in it?” Well, they think if no one else is in it, it must be no good.
There is another issue with venture capitalists – how long before commercial success? When I say 27 months their eyes glaze over. They still dream of the dot.com days when a new software product promised profits in a few months. They forget the later denouement.
Is an elder care robot doomed to remain in limbo? No, because the market is burgeoning while the technology is continually being enriched. We could have done it 10 years ago, but, today, it is even easier. What we need is a way to convince a lay audience with deep pockets. I have proposed a prototype project that would be convincing. For $700,000 and 14 months we could demonstrate essential performance and then attract the funding to go to alpha sites, beta sites, value engineering and tooling. My conviction is supported by a willingness to provide $200,000 for this project. Naturally, I would want to be involved in picking the key cadre of engineers involved in the development, no matter what country becomes the manufacturer of choice.
With the Industrial Robot Journal now espousing Service Robots, how can RoboCare miss sponsorship?
Joe F. Engelbergeris based in Newton, Connecticut, USA