Magazine article The Futurist

Why Design Matters for Domestic Robots: Cultural Differences around the World Should Be Factored into the Design of Commercial Robots

Magazine article The Futurist

Why Design Matters for Domestic Robots: Cultural Differences around the World Should Be Factored into the Design of Commercial Robots

Article excerpt

Robots created to help the elderly is hardly a novel concept, but Dutch scientist Tijn van der Zant believes that the global adoption of home robotics may be more novel and nuanced than we expect.

Van der Zant knows robots. He received his PhD in artificial intelligence from the University of Groningen in 2009, followed by a postdoc at the Stem Cell and Brain Research Institute in Lyon, France. In 2006, he helped found RoboCup@Home, a competition for home robotic teams. Today, he also serves as CEO of Assistobot, which designs robots to help the elderly in medical settings.

His experiences in just the last eight years have made him more and more optimistic about the developments in robotics. Vastly superior sensors, collaboration and open-source sharing among top universities, along with increased interest from every corner of the globe, have helped take robotics to an entirely new level.

Van der Zant told me: "We went from robots that couldn't play soccer (the traditional competitive activity of RoboCup robots) ... and were unlikely to be used at home ... to robots that can open the fridge, get a beer, open the beer for you, arid bring it to you."

Two specific predictions make van der Zant's vision of the future of home robotics different from that of most other roboticists and researchers I've spoken with. First, he believes that the vision of one "robotic maid" is a relatively unlikely scenario for the initial applications of home robotics. Rather, in 30 years, it will be likely "for each person to have multiple personal robots, each with specific tasks," he says.

Though van der Zant's doctoral work involved artificial general intelligence, he believes that useful home robots will begin with specific, individual tasks. An iRobot Roomba can handle vacuuming floors, for instance. More-advanced home robotics will still be relatively limited in their domain expertise and capacities, at least initially.

Second, van der Zant believes that home robots (potentially even more so than commercial robots) will need to be modified and adjusted based on the culture in which they function. …

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