Life at the end of the 21st century can only be imagined, but if the first decades are any indication, technology will continue to improve exponentially and will become even more ubiquitous than it is now. One area in which we can expect to see large advancements is the field of the household robot (HR). 

The most well known HR is the Roomba, the automated vacuum cleaner released in 2002. While the Roomba has experienced much success and has continued to grow in popularity, other HRs have been slower to be adopted by the public. The exception to this is HRs that perform non-physical tasks, such as making lists, playing music, or reporting the weather. While our AIs and digital assistants like Alexa are fairly competent, the future of the HR industry will depend on the amount of dexterity and movement they are capable of. 

For a technology to be adopted, especially while it’s expensive and in its infancy, it will need to serve a function that people are willing to pay for. The public will also have to be realistic about their expectations, perhaps we’ll see a Jetsons-esque robotic housekeeper by 2099, but it certainly won’t be the first model that’s released. MIT roboticist Kate Darling explained that the Roomba’s success has been largely due to the fact that it does one thing only, and does it well: “That’s what makes the Roomba so brilliant,” she said. “People understood the value—it didn’t try to be anything else. But how many household tasks are as simple as that one?” 

Nevertheless, companies continue to develop and test HRs that can perform tasks in three broad categories: household routines, security, and entertainment. However, creating robots with enough dexterity to load a dishwasher or fold laundry is prohibitively expensive for the average consumer; although ongoing developments in AI are helping by automating things such as navigation and responsiveness to voice commands. 

Some of the HRs currently in the works ange from automatic lawn mowers and window-cleaners, to AI integrated security systems and even tutors for your children. Yet the balance is tough to strike: the robot must be affordable enough that the average consumer could buy it, but have a clear and well-executed purpose, while also being something that people are willing to pay for. Currently, most HRs on the market are either too niche, too expensive, or not effective enough, yet the demand for automated work is growing.

One company in Japan has created a unique solution to the gap between what people want and what we can currently make. The company, Mira Robotics, is planning on releasing a HR this year that will be able to complete complex household tasks by removing the largest hindrance: programming. The way this will be accomplished is by having human operators, called teleoperators, behind the controls, not complex software or the burgeoning AI industry. Yet, AI will still play an important role such as blurring faces and documents in the video feed seen by remote employees.

If the technology takes off, teleoperators could work from anywhere, meaning that rich citizens could take advantage of cheap labor anywhere in the world. While this presents as a potential positive, as we’ve seen with the rise of the gig economy, the promise of flexible scheduling is often offset by the fact that although such workers are as committed to their jobs as salaried staff they aren’t given the benefits of health care or the promise of consistent and stable wages. Nevertheless, it’s very likely that telepresence labor will grow, since many rich nations are facing aging populations that need care workers to look after them, a challenge that’s often compounded by cuts to social spending and anti-immigration sentiments, according to Jamie Woodcock, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute.