New robots seem to arrive nearly every month, but it always seems like there’s something missing. From the new startup crowdfunded “Jibo” that bends and twists like a Siri-voiced, Wi-Fi-networked, robo-Smurf, to Japan’s “Pepper” that supposedly reads human emotions, according to its makers, to Honda’s running, jumping, signing “Asimo,” each one is good at performing a few simple tasks.

But a multi-function household robot that cooks, cleans, does the laundry, takes phone calls and waters the plants (anyone remember the cartoon Jetsons’ Rosie?) is still out of reach, experts say.

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“It’s not like there will be nothing and then in 20 years there will be a Rosie or a HERB in the home,” says Siddhartha Srinivasa, associate professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University who is developing the Home Exploring Robotic Butler (HERB).

“The technologies we are creating with HERB will be in homes, offices and workplaces a long time before you have a robot like Rosie,” he said. “You will have smarter homes, appliances and cars that will set the groundwork for a general purpose robot. It will be a gradual transition and will be taking steps along the way.”

Last year, HERB opened an Oreo cookie without crushing it; this year, it starred in a play on the CMU campus. But there are still big obstacles to building automated robots that can perform multiple tasks.

“The hardware is truly capable,” Srinivasa said. “What’s missing are the algorithms and smarts.”

The other problem is that the human environment, especially the home, is cluttered and messy. Existing robots do well on factory floors, for example, where objects are clearly defined, are placed in precise locations and can be moved easily.

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“Just pulling a book out of a bookshelf” is difficult, Srinivasa said. “We push, pull, pickup, sweep. We use physics for our benefit. We have to figure out how to build robots to deal with that and developing the algorithms.”

Developing arms that can hold an object without crushing or letting it go is also a big engineering challenge, according to Don Norman, director of the DesignLab at UC San Diego and author of The Design of Future Things.

One of the biggest challenges to building a housekeeping robot is engineering arms that are both strong and graceful. CMU

“The hardest part in a robot that goes around the house and cleans up, is the arms or the manipulators. It’s really hard to make an arm that is flexible enough, that can pick up things, grab tightly enough so it won’t slip out, but not enough to break it. There are arms that are successful, but they cost $20,000 to $40,000.”

Norman said that engineers are good at making intelligent machines that do specific tasks, but it’s very difficult to building something that can switch tasks.

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He believes that current models of driverless cars and smart dishwashers may be more like intelligent robots than the automated vacuum cleaner “robot” zooming across the floor.

Drawing the line between an intelligent appliance and a “robot” is become more difficult.

“Some people think that a robot is something that goes around and does things and is cute. It’s anthropomorphism. To us a robot has to be alive, moves around and appears to be intelligent in its movements.”

Given the existing hurdles in software, hardware and sensing, Norman believes it will be several decades before a HERB-like robot will find a place in the average American home. In Japan, however, this automated future may arrive sooner.

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That’s because there’s a greater social acceptance of robots as agents of good in Japan, whereas many people in the United States perceive them as Terminators or drones. Japan’s aging population will need robots to remind them to eat lunch, take medication or empty the dishwasher. In fact, Norman is working with a firm in Hong Kong to build a household robot called Autom that keeps its owner from eating too much.

“It walks in the kitchen says ‘good morning: did you stick to your diet at dinner?’ It doesn’t’ move but looks like a robot,” Norman said. “People seem to like it. Or they hate it.”