The trifecta of Technology, Cost and Need

If we observe living trends in robotic evolution, according to importance, there are three outstanding ones: space robots, domestic robots and assistive robots. Of course, there are many, highly innovative units ranging from robofishes and roboinsects to social robots that react to our emotions, but these are just prototypes and they are not really inserted in our society.

This mostly happens because complex robots are somewhat an expensive gadget that people can not afford unless necessary. For example, nifty Aibo robodog from Sony, with its open OS and wide sensing capabilities, became so popular in education and research that Robocup included an Aibo category and universities like Carnagie Mellon had courses on the subject. However, when the last CEO arrived to Sony, the first thing he did was to close the robotic line, including also the very promising biped QRIO that would have been much cheaper than previous systems like HOAP. It turns out that Aibos where not really profitable as toys, so the money went otherwhere, mostly to audio and TV equipments.

Given this premise, it is easy to understand why the aforementioned lines have predominance over the rest. Space robots are goverment investment, expected to go ... well, where no man has gone before, meaning that they do things that people can't and, in any case, they are not supposed to be sell in your average Wallmart. The same could be applied to rescue robots or explosive defusing ones, where money is, by any means, justified. This is the feature that characterises a first category.

Domestic robots are a completely different issue, as the only healthy selling models have been Roomba, its family and its clones: vacuum cleaners and floor washing robots that can be purchased for 200-300 USD and are quite handy to avoid the broom in your daily routine. In this case, robots are not that necessary, anyone can in fact sweep the floor, but they are cheap and replace us in tasks we do most likely not want to do. In other words, cost is compensated by benefits. This would be the case for robot toys, also, but people is not willing to pay so much to keep children entertained1. Hence, Aibos were discontinued, yet small, 10 USD creatures like Hexbugs are so appreciated by kids, and, lets face it, adults like us. Of course, need and cost are coupled in this area, so less popular, yet widely employed industrial robots are the big siblings of domestic robots and could be enclosed with them in a second category.

Assistive devices are a combination of the previous two categories. People need them for their daily living, so costs are acceptable, yet they can not afford a NASA prototype at home. However, either them or their country social services are willing to pay more than a few hundred bucks to ease their lives. Years ago, technology was either too expensive to bring these robots home or, simply, did not exist. However, assistive robotics, like eAssistance, has become fairly popular in developed countries. These robots are the focus of this blog.

1 Kids, in these cases, are well known for ignoring a 300 USD toy and rather focus on, e.g. the box

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