Mother's New Little Helper: The Smartphone

The smartphone will help to manage all the devices and robots in the smart home: from those that manage your health to self-driving cars, by 2020 robots will become common.

Modern life is complex and stressful; the average person finds it difficult to cope with the demands of work and home. The daily commute, in some urban situations, can swallow hours out of the day, while commitments, such as ensuring children get to school and extra-mural activities on time, leave little time left to organize one's daily routine. In most families, both the husband and wife have a career, not purely for self-fulfilment, but because the cost of living precludes any alternatives. It is increasingly difficult to find time to plan and make the correct investment, health and life choices, and to ensure that these choices will improve the current status quo. These pressures have given rise to a variety of coaches and assistants that can help in problem-solving and meeting goals. Only the fortunate few can afford to hire a human life coach or a personal trainer. However, help is at hand in the form of the smartphone, a compact little butler that can organize a multitude of activities and take the pressure off its owner.

The next decade will see huge strides in artificial intelligence and connectivity, supported by the Internet of Things (IoT). In a recent study, Juniper Research analyses and predicts the growth of the domestic robot market. They are at pains to explain that the term "robot" in this context applies to devices that have the ability to perform set tasks autonomously, either at a preset time or under the direction of signals from their owner. This is where the smartphone comes into its own: it will be the device that is used to issue commands to these various robots and other "smart home" appliances through one or more mobile applications. In order to ensure these interactions are as painless as possible, much work will have to be undertaken in mobile app development to streamline and optimize the conversations with all these disparate helpers. There are physical solutions available that can coordinate devices, such as Samsung's Smart Things hub; however, they are generally complex to install and will need to evolve through a few versions before they become a truly useful device.

The Assisted Household

While this may all seem far-fetched right now, the time horizon Jupiter examines is from now until 2021. They predict shipments of consumer robots to rise to nearly 48 million in 2020. These robots are categorised according to function. While a great deal of attention in this sector is directed towards autonomous vehicles, especially following the US Department of Transport Challenge, won by Columbus Ohio, they are outside the scope of this article, although very much a part of the future "smart home".

Apart from transport robotics, Juniper defines 5 other categories of robots, namely:

  • Task-oriented robots for domestic chores and security
  • Healthcare robots for personal fitness and vital signs and management of chronic and life-threatening illnesses
  • Educational robots that both assist and engage in education
  • Entertainment assistants that range from drone control to movie catalogers
  • And finally, social robots. These are probably the final frontier, as they will require a good deal of AI (artificial intelligence) to make a satisfactory companion.

Getting the Job Done: Task-oriented Robots

These are robots and devices we are already familiar with. While we have grown up with washing machines and dishwashers, these can now be pre-programmed and instructed to start, pause or end a task. As far as actual robots go, Roomba immediately springs to mind. The little vacuum cleaner has been around for some time now in many households, together with its outdoor cousin, the automatic lawnmower. This category also includes security devices, such as CCTV and intrusion detection devices that can transmit a signal to the owner's mobile device. A baby monitor can be tracked from anywhere in the globe or from the next room via one's smartphone.

Getting Fit and Staying Healthy

With the introduction of wearables and sports and exercise apps, this category is already well embedded into daily use by millions. A virtual personal trainer is easily "hired" by anyone interested in keeping fit. Health management by checking heart rate and temperature via a wearable is also easily accessible. Further developments in managing one's personal health will evolve as the use of big data in healthcare matures. Soon a holistic view of a patient will be available to any physician involved in their well-being, and not just the slice of data currently held in the doctor's rooms. This will enable early detection of life-threatening illnesses and management of chronic disorders.

Every Day One Learns Something New

Education has seen a massive disruption via online offerings and the rise of the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Lifelong learning is a necessity not a luxury, and robots will assist in a variety of ways. One robotic feature used by the MOOCs is the enablement of certification of students via webcam and writing style. A combination of these validations is used to ensure that the person taking the online course is the student that enrolled. There are many interesting developments in educational robotics, such as the CoWriter project that teaches children to read by getting them to teach a robot to read.

Having Fun and Managing Lifestyle

Whether it is controlling a drone, playing social games or merely organizing one's movie collection, robots and apps will support the state of play. Robots and devices in this space will become the social robots of the next decade, once AI has matured to the point where these aids become more like a human analog. Amazon's Alexa, a virtual personal assistant, is a case in point. Where people are using the voice component Alexa to surf the Internet or ask for a weather report, there is a new and interesting social relationship between the owner and the device. Alexa is normally housed in Amazon's Echo device, but any other device that is Alexa-enabled can be used.

The Robotic Companion

While AI has still got a long way to go, social robots are becoming more viable. There could be debate around whether Alexa is a true social robot in its current incarnation as a personal assistant. It will be interesting to compare 2020 Alexa with 2017 Alexa, and there are already some interesting forecasts of what Amazon's helper will be like by then. The fact that Amazon have opened up the use of Alexa to other device makers and encourage developers to add "skills" to Alexa's toolset will only accelerate the capabilities.

Needless to say, there are competitors in the market, like Google Home. Some of these robots are gaining acceptance, while some are not.

Juniper also examine the role of the robot as an intimate companion, a rather depressing view of where the world is going, which has already been explored in science fiction and movies such as "Surrogates".

Our Robotic Future

Whether you are a technophile or a luddite, one thing is clear: much of the routine work in a household can be carried out by a robotic device even now. Those rosy predictions of what the smart home will look like are being fulfilled as you read this. Chances are you will be using your smartphone to orchestrate all this domestic activity, in coordination with a device like Echo, where you can ask Alexa to order you a pizza to be there when you get home. Facets of your life, like managing your health, can be "outsourced" to a wearable on your wrist that "talks" to your phone. Your phone is so much more than a device for communicating via voice and SMS - it is your passport to a less cluttered life, where you have delegated much of the mundane to this small and vital object.

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