Getting a machine to do the household chores is by no means an option that is exclusively available to us in the modern day. However, what is new is the level of autonomy that machines can operate on due to advances in both robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) in recent years.
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A Brief History of Household Automation
Labor-saving machines first started to appear in American and European homes in the early twentieth century. Electric power distribution to residential properties was swiftly followed by household machines to wash and dry laundry, heat water, refrigerate food, sew clothing, and clean dishes.
In time, this contributed to significant shifts in human society and culture. More freedom from the time constraints of domestic chores – among many other factors – created a new population of employable adults. Women, who had typically been tasked with household labor, were now available for work outside the home.
Household Robots and the "Smart" Home
Now, these appliances from the first wave of household automation are becoming "smart," connected to the internet, and loaded with computer chips so that they can perform their jobs with minimal human input.
Smart appliances can also do jobs that devices have never been able to do before. Smart fridges, a controversial technology cited as automation gone too far, can monitor stock levels and automatically reorder groceries when they are running low.
Household robots are also creeping into our homes and may be used more in the future as technology progresses. While seen as more of a gimmick than a game-changer, the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner may look like the forerunner of a new way of life in the not too distant future.
Automation can Cut Costs in the Household Budget
Integrating all of these technologies with sensors and home automation systems and asking an AI to optimize household routines will also create energy and utility savings for the home budget. Optimized temperature, humidity, lighting, washing machine cycles, and boiler maintenance checks can all combine to create real savings for bill-payers. An automated city block can save energy and reduce pollution, benefitting the whole community and the planet as well.
Integrating all of the home automation networks with renewable energy-powered electric grids can also significantly improve the power supply. Energy consumers (appliances) could be in direct contact with the energy grid so that demand is optimized to reduce peak load strains and deliver a more consistent stream of power to homes.
Smart Homes for Safety
According to an iControl survey in 2015, the energy savings that home automation can bring are of secondary importance to most people investing in these systems. The most important factor for them was personal and family security. Smart home systems can keep children safe by switching off dangerous appliances or restricting access to certain areas in the house. Home surveillance can also be monitored remotely, providing residents with some peace of mind.
Is Household Automation Here to Stay?
But smart home technology is still not widespread in the way that household appliances like washing machines and water heaters are. Concerns over data protection, safety, and cost prevent some people from automating their household chores.
Many customers and potential customers of Amazon's Alexa or Apple's Echo voice-activated home automation systems have voiced worry over the level of access that these data-harvesting tech giants could get in their homes. For some, purchasing this technology is simply installing surveillance tools into your most private space.
There is also a technical barrier to entry, with the fully automated home seen as more of an automation hobbyist's passion project than a realistic home improvement venture.
Perhaps the main barrier to the wide adoption of smart home technology and household robots is the lack of perceived value for the additional smart functionality. Consumers have heard stories of Roomba vacuum cleaners getting stuck, Amazon's Alexa voice-activated home automation hub syncing with the wrong household, or smart fridges being hacked.
Home automation and household robots introduce a new kind of machine to the house, one that often cannot be repaired without specialist tools and knowledge – or a software patch.
When household automation breaks, the consequences can be devastating. Malfunctioning home security systems can leave the house wide open to burglars and can lock residents out of their homes. When landlords install these systems, tenants may be left waiting for their landlord to resolve the issue and unable to do anything about it themselves.
Digital and information technology like this is also vulnerable to remote hacking and can leak personal information. Researchers have estimated over 87% of active smart devices contain exploitable security flaws due to vendors failing to support older devices with software patches.
For these risks to seem worth it, household automation and robots need to demonstrate enough value in terms of time-saving, cost-saving, or energy-saving to the public.
Continue reading: Telepresence Robotics: An Overview.
References and Further Reading
International Federation of Robotics (2019) Executive Summary World Robotics 2019 Service Robots [online] Available at: https://ifr.org/downloads/press2018/Executive_Summary_WR_Service_Robots_2019.pdf
Tibken, S. (2021) Samsung's CES 2021 robots will clean your house and pour you a glass of wine. [online] CNET. Available at: https://www.cnet.com/home/smart-home/samsung-ces-2021-robots-will-clean-your-house-and-pour-you-a-glass-of-wine/.