Why hasn’t the robot butler come to pass?

Imagine coming home from work and not having to do any chores.

The dishes are always done, the laundry is always folded, the garden is always beautiful. No more arguments to have with children about cleaning their rooms. No more putting the bins out.

There aren’t many of us that would turn down the opportunity to be free of chores for good. And that’s a dream reflected in the long-standing sci-fi promise of the robot butler.

Yet, despite the rise of artificial intelligence and robotics, the robot butler is still not in our homes. Why?

What is a robot butler?

A butler is someone that works as a domestic worker in a household. A robot butler, then, is a robot that fills this role of the domestic worker.

The duties of a butler (or indeed, a robot butler) typically vary based on the needs of the household they serve. But, broadly speaking, they handle menial chores that we don’t want to do ourselves. For instance:

  • Washing the dishes
  • Laundry
  • Taking out rubbish
  • Tidying up
  • Cleaning rooms
  • Making beds
  • Keeping soaps/toilet paper etc. stocked
  • Cooking
  • Keeping the kitchen/pantry stocked
  • Tending to or maintaining the garden
  • Conversation, such as asking and answering questions, and company

And so on.

The technology behind the robot butler

To understand why the robot butler has yet to happen, it’s helpful to understand the technology behind it. What is needed for the robot butler to be feasible?

There are, in fact, two categories of technology involved:

  • Hardware (or robotics)
  • Software (including artificial intelligence technology)

These technologies are a limiting factor, and represent a hurdle to the creation and introduction of a robotic domestic worker. Then, the security behind both these technologies represents another key hurdle.

Hurdle one: technology – hardware

The hardware requirements for a robot butler concern advanced robotics machinery.

A robotic butler needs to be capable of moving around a household. This means being able to independently navigate through doors, up and down stairways, and over or around obstacles like furniture, toys, pets, and people. Such robotic ability is not yet widely available.

There will also need to be a level of dexterity. That is, a butler machine would need to be able to grip and pick up items without damaging them and manipulate them to complete tasks. I.e., folding laundry, moving a sponge to wash dishes, or placing dishes safely in a dishwasher.

These may sound like simple tasks. But while easy for humans, these ‘basic’ skills prove very difficult for machines.

See also: What is Moravec’s paradox and what does it mean for modern AI?

Then, there are the hurdles of size and cost to consider. These domestic robots would need to not only be adept at movement and dexterity, but also a reasonable size to fit in the everyday house or even flat/apartment.

And they need to be affordable to boot. Be waterproof. Have great battery life. And so on. The point is: the hardware needed to make the robot butler an everyday reality is incredibly complex.

Hurdle two: technology – software

With all the robotics/hardware hurdles covered, we also need to consider software requirements. That is, the programming and artificial intelligence (AI) functionality that a robot butler would need to work.

For example, a robot butler would need:

This would enable the robot to learn the tasks you most want it to complete in your home, and improve at its role as a butler over time.

This allows a machine to understand language as we humans speak it, rather than needing codified instructions. It’s also part of what would allow the robot to converse with us and follow orders.

  • Voice recognition

Voice recognition is what would allow the robot to ‘hear’ and ‘understand’ its owners. Without it, the robot could not converse or receive verbal input.

  • Computer vision

Computer vision would be core for the robot butler to be a reality. It would need to be able to see enough to navigate the house, find and sort/tidy items, pick up things, and so on.

Without computerised ‘sight’, there’s no way for the robot butler to work.

We cannot, after all, provide a constant, up to date map of exactly where everything and everyone in the house is at all times.

  • Decision making

A robot butler needs to be able to decide what to do and when. Does the toilet need more bleach? Should the dishes come before or after the laundry? Is it a good day to mow the lawn or hang the laundry outside?

A shorter way to think of it is the difference between narrow or weak AI and wide or strong AI. Narrow AI (which is what is currently becoming available) is really good at one thing. But, it’s not capable of lots of things. A robot butler would require strong, general AI — AI that fully mimics human intelligence. Unfortunately, that level of artificial intelligence technology has not yet been achieved.  

See also: ELI5: what is cognitive automation?

Hurdle three: security and safety

Finally, there are the security and safety concerns around a robot butler that would need to be addressed before they could become reality.

For example:

  • Would the robot butler be connected to the internet? Will it have access to other devices in the household?
  • Where would the data that the robot needs to function get stored? How would its security be assured?
  • What happens if a robot butler is ‘hacked’ or attacked by bad actors?

There’s also the safety of the occupants in a house to consider. For instance, a robot butler needs to be safe to operate even around pets and children. If there’s a chance it could malfunction and cause them harm, then it’s not safe to operate it in the house.

See also: AI for children: the risks and the rights

What we have currently

Clearly, there’s a long way to go technologically before the robot butler seen in science fiction is in our homes.

But while there might not be a robot butler just yet, that doesn’t mean we don’t have any useful domestic bot support.

Consider the Roomba — a domestic robot, already in our homes. Or think about personal voice assistants like Alexa or Siri, machines in our homes that answer questions and help us stay on top of things. (Just like a butler might.)

Then there’s the promising advancement of chatbots, which are becoming increasingly more adept and can even appear human now. These represent the growing ability of machines to understand us and converse with us — a must if the robot butler is ever to become reality.

For a view of currently available robotics, you need look no further than the robots created by Boston Dynamics. These bots can navigate stairs and uneven terrain, and can avoid falling over when pushed.

All this is to say, the technologies and functionalities needed for the robot butler are getting there. It’s just not quite ready yet.

The robot butler

The robot butler is the domestic servant of the future. It’s a use of artificial intelligence and robotics technology that sci-fi writers have long hyped up. But unfortunately, the technology has not yet been realised.  

The question remains: will it ever happen? Will we ever get the long-awaited robot butler?

The technology involved continues to advance. Narrow domestic robots are beginning to enter our homes. These signs suggest that the robot butler could well be in our future. Or, perhaps we will accrue a collection of domestic robots to do our chores.

Only time will tell.

Useful links

What is Moravec’s paradox and what does it mean for modern AI?

ELI5: What is cognitive automation?

AI for children: the risks and the rights