Robot butlers operated by remote workers are coming to do your chores

For almost all the time that robots have existed, humans have wanted robots stewards: autonomous machines that make our offers at home. But our imagination exceeds our technological capabilities, and the closest we have come to the construction of Rosie the Robot are specialized machines, such as robotic vacuum cleaners, or voice activated devices, such as Amazon's Alexa.

A Japanese company believes it can change this by evicting a basic principle of domestic robotics: instead of software controlling machines, it wants humans to do so.

Founded in 2018, Mira Robotics introduced its Ugo robot earlier this year, promising that the robot, when it goes on sale in 2020, will be able to perform a variety of household tasks, beginning with emptying a washing machine and folding . clothing.

This may seem like a simple job, but it's incredibly difficult for robots. Getting a machine to double a shirt requires not only understanding how soft materials are deformed, but also the ability to perceive visual cues and the mechanical skill to manipulate that object. Knowledge is intuitive for humans, but it is a real challenge to capture in code. Even cutting-edge research laboratories can not make robots that can perform this task as skillfully as humans.

But by replacing the brains of robots with humans, Mira says she can avoid these problems altogether. Talking to The Verge, Mira CEO Ken Matsui says that if everything goes according to plan, the robots that do the laundry will be just the beginning. "I believe that remote controlled robots can provide a variety of help in the home environment," says Matsui, "such as cleaning rooms, preparing the kitchen, observing service for the elderly, caring for pets or the tutoring ".

Ugo looks friendly enough to take care of your pets, but he probably can not clean up after them. It has a wide base, a "head" full of sensors with illuminated eyes and a pair of robotic arms attached to a cylindrical torso, which can ascend and descend like a fireman's ladder. Instead of human hands, it is equipped with a pair of robotic pliers; They are agile enough to pick up clothes, but not enough to unscrew a jar.

Mira will begin beta testing Ugo in "real homes and real families" this summer, says Matsui, before launching a paid service in 2020 aimed at dual-income families with children. Why this demographic? "Because they do not have the time, they are very busy and we want to take care of them," says Matsui. Prices have not yet been finalized, but customers can expect to rent the robot for around $ 225 a month, which will include between six and eight hours of cleaning services. Users can pay extra if they want more hours.

The company says it is developing custom virtual reality movement controllers for operators, which will work with PCs and laptops through a custom application. Mira says he wants to employ these operators directly at the beginning, but that, in the future, this work could be outsourced.

robot butlers operated by remote workers are coming to do your chores

Ugo seems functional, but during the demonstrations, his movements are slow and cautious.
Image: Mira Robotics

Operating robots remotely is not a new invention, but to date, it is a method that has been limited to certain domains. Machines with remote control are usually taking on tasks that are dangerous for human beings, such as the elimination of bombs or nuclear cleaning work, or are focused on the transposition of our social skills, not our mechanical capacity, as with robots of telepresence used in offices or hospitals. .

A big reason why they are not more common is that right-handed robots are incredibly expensive. However, there are suggestions that this could change. Earlier this year, for example, MIT introduced a two-armed robot called Blue that costs only $ 5,000 to build. (Those orders of magnitude are cheaper than similar research robots that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.)

AI could also help. Advances in machine learning mean that some basic operations, such as navigating a house, can be done autonomously. In the case of Mira Robotics, the company will also use artificial intelligence to blur faces and documents in the video channel seen by its telemarketers. That would not have been feasible a few years ago.

Other companies are beginning to explore new uses for teleoperation. Robotics startup Kindred, for example, builds robot arms for warehouses. When your software fails, such as when an arm can not grab an object, humans intervene to operate the robot using the VR motion controllers. These data are then sent back to the software to improve the skills of the robot. Mira Robotics plans to introduce a similar feedback loop in its own service.

As Matsui says: "We believe that our approach (developing low-cost robots and using artificial intelligence together with humans) is the way to provide this service in people's homes …"

However, There are many reasons to be skeptical about Mira's claims: In the demonstration videos, the Ugo robot is slow and clearly incapable of matching the dexterity of a human, it is also bulky and unable to navigate stairs or even small steps. argue that these limitations do not necessarily matter in the right home, but are not promising attributes for the robot butler of the future.

Ankur Handa, a research scientist who specializes in artificial intelligence and robotics, says Verge that telepresence is a novel and interesting approach to solving the problem of automation of domestic work, but, he says, the technology does not adapt It is good and "it tends to be quite slow".

If telepresence work becomes common, it would bring with it a series of social and economic challenges. It would mean that poorly paid manual workers, a group that is already marginalized in society, would become even more invisible and marginalized.

Jamie Woodcock, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, says Mira's sales pitch is a continuation of Big Tech's interest in on-demand cleaning and housework.

"Many people now have a cleaner they have never seen before, they met at home when they are at work doing these manual tasks," said Woodcock The Verge . "The dream of much of Silicon Valley is to invisibilize and hide the workers behind these platforms. "

Manual work is hard to hide, says Woodcock, because workers need to be physically present A wealthy person living in London, for example, can not hire someone who lives in Manila, where salaries and the cost of living are cheaper, to do housework, but with telepresence, that distance It would disappear, and wealthy citizens could take advantage of cheap labor anywhere in the world.

This type of telepresence domestic work may be beneficial It could create jobs in developing countries and, as with platforms such as Uber and TaskRabbit, it can be argued that workers could benefit in terms of flexibility. But as we have seen in the reports on the concert economy in general, this flexibility is often an illusion, with workers as committed to their work as salaried staff would be but without the benefits of health care or stable wages.

Woodcock is skeptical that technology like Ugo, if it ever takes off, will be a positive force for workers. "It is unlikely that a process as expensive as that of the capital [of building and operating robots] is used to protect workers," he says.

Despite these problems, it is likely that telepresence staff will be tested in rich countries. Many Western nations have aging populations that need caregivers to care for them, a challenge that is often compounded by cuts in social spending and anti-immigrant sentiments. Matsui from Mira Robotics points out that in Japan, particularly, there is a great need for technology to fill this gap.

"Japan has a super-aged society. So perhaps Japan can be a role model to live with personal robots, "he says. If Ugo is successful in its country of origin, Matsui wants to export the robot to South Korea and China. Over time, he says, teleoperated robots like this could become commonplace in homes around the world. "I think this is a new lifestyle."

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