Like many of you reading this story, each and every year I think finally there will be a technology shift or a new product launch and the world will go crazy for robots. Suddenly our lives will be filled with home automation, intelligent devices and robots trundling around our homes performing many useful tasks and hopefully not causing a traffic jam in your home (see previous blog entry). However year after year my take on this is that I see many great companies at best cautiously dipping their toes into the water to see how the market responds. There is no mass move to robotic products or home automation at a consumer level. Of course you will tell me that there have been robotic carpet cleaners for quite some time now but in all honesty I have yet to see one in use in all the friends and family we encounter. While the creators of these products have been very successful why are we not seeing more use cases for robotics and home automation or a combination of the two.

Perhaps we really are over thinking this and instead of many companies each trying to work this out they should instead come together as a group and think about the real need for robotics and work together to identify a very limited set of use cases and launch a set of products together. Perhaps the key problem and use case we should focus on is to care for the elderly and help keep them safe in their own home where possible and above all feeling useful and connected.

Personally I have always enjoyed talking with people many years my senior. At an early age I realized that these people in their 60’s and 70’s and beyond had simply experienced more in life than I had and absolutely had valuable experiences and stories to share and life lessons they had learned and as yet I had not. I believe that robotics and home automation can help make these people of advancing years not only stay safe and secure but also still feel like the world has not passed them by. I always believe that perhaps the many great companies out there should stop trying to shoot for the moon independently and simply work together on a key set of use cases and aim to deliver first products in a matter of 3-4 years instead of randomly putting out products that see little success outside the labs.

In fact my family in the UK had stayed in contact with a friend of the family who we had known for years. She was unique in that even though she was of advanced years (we guessed she was in her late 80’s) this
lady did not live in a nursing home but instead lived by herself in a large home and welcomed our visits and calls where she could catch up on the happenings with our family, the world around her and swap notes on how “that Mr Gates was doing” J. Let’s call her Dorothy.

However as time went by I had to admit I was concerned that someone like Dorothy should perhaps not be living alone in a large house and often thought how technology could help keep her communicating and safe. In fact I almost dreaded calling because I knew that the reason she would take a long time to answer the phone was that for whatever reason she did not keep a phone by her chair but instead had to slowly get up and walk across the room to the hallway to get the phone. I had no idea why she did not own a wireless phone or even a smartphone.

In fact only a few years ago while my sister was visiting, Dorothy had a minor medical issue and my sister had to call the doctor. The doctor needed to know Dorothy’s birthdate and yes she was annoyed but had to reveal the truth! Dorothy was in fact about to turn one hundred years of age!!!. While staying independent this lady had made it to one hundred years of age and was still staying very interested in what was happening in the world and was relatively healthy. We would all like to get to this ripe old age but hopefully things will have changed by that time and the home will become a far friendlier place. Sadly Dorothy passed away a few years ago and did not get around to digging out the photo of the sports car she used to drive to show me but she proved that getting older does not always mean you have to give up your independence. Perhaps though technology could have helped her more at home and also made it easier to help her keep in touch with friends and family.

Many of the things we take for granted will hopefully have been automated by the time we reach our advanced years. Even today my young kids will happily open the fridge and not close it. Simple isn’t it…a fridge that realizes you did not close it and slowly closes itself. What about one major area of concern such as leaving an oven on or a gas burner going. As you age and your memory starts to degrade many of these simple activities will become harder to complete and yet simple technology such as a cooker that knows
you are not using it and so should be switched off could be part of your future or a connected home experience where one system knows that your cooker has been on for two hours and can auto trigger a shut down command.

However what about personal monitoring. If you end up living alone would you like one hundred percent privacy or would the idea of a companion robot interest you. In our friends case a simple communication system that followed her around the house would have been a good idea that not only meant she could talk with friends and family but could also act as a home monitor to remind her of things that needed to happen such as your cooker is still on or you left the fridge open or shall I get the mail? Perhaps the robot will be a
new form of chair that is intelligent and can not only move you safely around the home but can help you communicate as well. These have been hinted at by many of the major car manufacturers but again have yet to appear.

If you think forward to a time when your children have grown up what technology will be in your home keeping you safe. Perhaps a system that constantly monitors you and can tell that while you have not moved from the couch you are in fact just taking a nap as you always do at this time and not had a stroke for example.

When you consider the cost of keeping an elderly person in a nursing home long term it is no surprise that many countries with an aging population are looking hard at robotics as a way to save money in terms of paying for health care workers however again there is a key piece missing and that is simply that the technology companies are trying in many cases to do this by themselves perhaps in the hope they can corner the market.

In fact many of the technologies used to keep an elderly person safe and independent in their homes would then drive other use cases. Technologies such as AI, speech, smarter sensors and so forth will of course have uses way beyond this initial scenario so what is needed to get there? I would suggest a few simple steps.

  • Identify some of the key players in AI / Robotics
    technology, companies perhaps that have already test launched a few products or
    we know are thinking creatively about robotics and home automation products that could be brought to market
  • Bring all these companies together to brainstorm about compelling use cases such as the one I presented here
  • Come up with a short term plan to bring products to market in a reasonable time frame
  • Either work with the other attendees on these products or produce a similar set of products where there can be clearly differentiators such as company 1 delivers a smart chair that can integrate with your home automation system but company 2 delivers a similar chair that can also tie into your communication system. By doing this companies can work together but result in competing products

Either the robotic companies will finally decide to work together or we will face a future where no really compelling consumer robotics products will happen in the next five years.. We have the technology but what we don’t have is a group of companies prepared to work together and work out once and for all, are robots in the home really needed?

I hope they work this out before I reach one hundred years of age.

 

John O'Donnell, Sr. Technology Evangelist, DPE
Microsoft Corporation
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