Toyota's robotics division has created a new robot intended to help out around the house as people get older, but without expecting them to change up their lifestyle. The "gantry robot" hangs from the ceiling and is capable of completing tasks like cleaning and loading the dishwasher all without being too obtrusive — though it might scare the dog, honestly.
Getting out of the way — Unlike the typical helper robot that roves around on the floor, Toyota sees a hanging robot as better for helping out in homes with limited floor space — it got the idea for a gantry robot in Japan, where space is especially constrained and the over-65 population is huge and growing.
Homes in the future could be built with robots integrated directly in the ceiling, meaning they'd stay out of the way and be able to help with more tasks. You could imagine the robot cleaning the dishes and then putting them away in cabinets, for instance. Toyota's plan is that these robots will augment a person's ability to live a normal life rather than totally taking over all activities. If you no longer have the ability to lift heavy objects or reach high-up shelves safely, for instance, it'll be able to assist without you feeling like you're losing your freedom and independence.
One challenge with home-based bots (or any robot, really) is that they're not very smart. Toyota says it's using virtual reality to train the machines. Using VR controllers, humans perform the desired action — like picking up and cleaning a plate — and the movements are programmed into the robot's memory.
Don't get your hopes up — Still, the home space is difficult because there's so much variance from one home to another. The question becomes, how does the robot know how to complete a simple task when it's placed into a home with a different layout than it's been trained to understand? Artificial intelligence in robots is quite crude and relies on machines recognizing scenarios they've seen before. Researchers are still working toward making machine learning algorithms good at inferring what they're looking at as, for now, even small variations in a dishwasher or sink faucet could throw them where humans can adapt and account for a huge range of variables.
It's no surprise then that Toyota says it has no plans to commercialize the gantry robot. The research isn't a total waste, however. As the global population of people aged 65 and older grows, the investment here could someday bear fruit.
Robots have proven useful in other, more unexpected ways during the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis. They're being used to serve diners in restaurants, for instance, and cheer on sports teams playing to otherwise empty stadiums.
The gantry robot was made by Toyota's Research Institute, which also demoed some other futuristic bots in a presentation yesterday. You can watch the whole thing below. In keeping with the futuristic theme, it's even better with a VR headset.