future speak

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The buying and selling of robots will become a very powerful consumer market. But it will start out as a medical accessory market.

AD: What's ahead in the world of robotics?

JE: The goal is to develop a robot that can measure vital signs, handle security, cook, and clean. If you were otherwise likely to go to a nursing home, you'd be able to extend your independent living with the use of a robot. Nursing homes cost $40,000 to $60,000 a year. Live-in help runs about $140 a day. And you've got to house them, feed them, and guarantee sleep time. You can rent a Cadillac for $500 a month. If you rented a robot for $500 a month, you'd have 24-hour, on-the-spot help. It comes to a dollar an hour.

AD: What's the demand for a household robot?

JE: We've done focus groups with company presidents, young engineers, and elderly people. We told them: ‘Here are 10 things a robot might do. Please rate them. Are you a TAF (technologically advanced family)? Do you think it's easy to get household help? If you were buying a new home, what would you pay to have a robot built into the house?’ The company presidents said they would pay $70,000 or more for a robot. You put it in your mortgage and the government will help you pay for it. Engineers, mostly DINKs (dual income, no kids) would pay $62,000. They would call the robot and say, ‘We're having a couple more guests. Set the table for two more people. Open the red wine and let it breathe.’

AD: Were you surprised?

JE: I was. I would guess the company presidents are in an income bracket six times the size of the engineers. But the affluent elderly came up with the highest evaluation of all — $78,000. In their case, they were thinking of selling their homes and moving to a smaller space, adding the price of the robot to the cost of the home. Wouldn't it be nice to have a full-time servant and someone who is going to cook and clean and handle security? Many older people have a hearing problem. Suppose you don't hear a fire alarm. Your robot is going to hear it, shake you and wake you up, and make sure you get out, call the fire department, and go back in and fight the fire. In the future, you'll have a sign in front of your house to scare burglars away. It'll say, “Robot Response.�

AD: What does this mean from a marketing standpoint? Is the buying and selling of robots the consumer market of the future?

JE: It will be a very powerful consumer market, but it will start out as a medical accessory market. It would be a tremendous economic benefit to a person who could stay home instead of going into a nursing home. The Health Care Finance administration, insurance companies, and the Veterans Administration are all organizations that have to care for elderly people. Once it becomes useful and economical to send a robot to your house instead of a human being, these organizations might consider assigning you a robot. It's a multibillion dollar market. Just consider how many people are in nursing homes and how many would end up there without a robot's help.

AD: When will we begin to see them marketed for consumer use?

JE: We need to finish the development before they can be put on the market. It could be as soon as 27 months and $5 million from now. You'll want a robot. But I'm confident that the first people who will want it will be the elderly infirm in nursing homes.

For many, it would be a dream come true. After getting home, you plop down on the couch and ask for a beer. “Sure thing,� your robot says as it rolls over to the refrigerator. It opens the door and peers inside. Within minutes, it gently places the cold beer can in your hand.

Could this scenario become a reality? Robotics expert Joseph F. Engelberger says it could be very soon. He believes we're only two or three years and $5 million away from seeing robots help cook and clean around the house.

Engelberger should know. Often called the father of robotics, he helped develop the first industrial robot in 1961. Now chairman of Danbury, Connecticut-based Helpmate Robotics Inc., he designed a robotic courier that is used in over 80 hospitals nationwide. Equipped with a map of the hospital in its brain, it rolls around, collects blood and urine samples, visits the central supply room, and delivers medicine to nurses. The company also developed a prototype for an elder-care robot under the sponsorship of the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA).

Engelberger says the market for mobile, articulate, service robots with sensory perception could easily eclipse demand for industrial robots. He contends that robots could assume many of the tasks handled in service industries, including helping care for the elderly and sick. American Demographics' Sandra Yin asked this robotics pioneer to describe the robots in our future.

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