back to article Where the HELL is my ROBOT BUTLER?

For decades the development of the computer has been driven by businesses. Businesses bought mainframes, PCs and servers. They bought in such quantity that the consumer was, for most technology companies, a mere afterthought. Today, consumer purchases of endpoints outstrip business purchases by a wide margin. None of this is …


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  1. Pete 2 Silver badge

    It's already here (and has been for years)

    > something that automates away some tedious bit so that I can sleep more

    Pop the bread in the toaster - go off and do something else.

    Drop your laundry in the washer then go to the shops

    While you're there, buy a prepacked sandwich for lunch - and a readymeal for later

    On the way home, pop the motor through the car wash in a couple of minutes

    Have to talk to someone in Dusseldorf, Raleigh or Wellington? Surprise! you can just pick up the phone,

    We have so many time and labour saving devices - and have had for so long - that they are fully incorporated into our lives. To the extent where they are invisible and just taken as normal. However, we don't have a single robotic slave that does all of the tedious chores we are too lazy, or don't have time for (which amounts to the same thing: prioirities). No. Our "robotic butlers" are distributed through the home and our daily lives and show up in the form of gadgets and as the service industries which are such a large part of our lives - and a massive (if low paid) part of the workforce.

  2. Denarius Silver badge
    Thumb Up


    I like the thinking but think it flawed. Yes I am inconsistent. A decent robot butler/house keeper will need a reliable high capacity power source. Despite many predictions of decent batteries Real Soon Now these seem as far away as commercial nuclear fusion and receding at same rate. Anything tethered to a power socket will be of limited capability. A self plugging in unit with short term storage to let it change its power point might work, but a robot assistant should be able to go shopping with you. I am thinking of aged support here. No XP jokes please. Also artificial intelligence is also another one of those Real Soon Now things. Granted some improvements have been made in coding and more importantly, power drain, technology is a long way from an in house general purpose robot Asimov level. Self driving cars maybe.

    1. Denarius Silver badge

      Re: It's already here (and has been for years)

      Pete, partly true. Highly specialist robotic devices exist and all have one characteristic. Simplicity due to a single designed function. Wash clothes to standard spec with some measurement for soap and load, how dark ones toast is calcined, sweep the floor etc. I understand Trevor to be talking about generalised robotic help. There he is spot on.

      1. Pete 2 Silver badge

        Re: It's already here (and has been for years)

        > I understand Trevor to be talking about generalised robotic help

        Yes, I got that, too. However we'll never get there.

        The reason is simply that as soon as we get a new level of automation, we'll fill all our excess free time, not with sleeping - as that needs no robotic help at all, but with other trivia. Then we'll complain that it is taking up all our leisure time - and wouldn't it be great if we could automate it away .... and so on

        1. James Micallef Silver badge

          Re: It's already here (and has been for years)

          The trivia we need help with can always be automated a bit more... preparing food, loaidng / starting / unloading the dishwasher, seperating clothes before washing and folding / putting away after, shopping for and preparing food... all of this can be automated much further than it is today.

          Yes the argument could be made that we will just use this extra time to watch TV, play Angry Birds and browse / comment on el Reg!

    2. James Micallef Silver badge

      Re: It's already here (and has been for years)

      @Pete - you haven't considered that you have to put the bread in the toaster, you have to put the laundry in the washer, you have to drive your car to the car wash et etc.

      How more convenient would it be if the toast and coffee start getting prepared the moment you wake so by the time you get to the kitchen they're fresly ready? Or if your car could drive itself to the car wash while you're at the mall and then come pick you up? Why do you even need to go to the supermarket when an automated order can have your food delivered? And so on and so forth.

      Yes, our lives are unquestionably easier and we have more free time than at any time before, but it's still possible to have more. And yes I want my goddam' robot butler!*

      *or monkey butler with cybernetic brain

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

        1. Robert Grant

          Re: It's already here (and has been for years)

          For me that's not just a line in a book, it's a bug report I get once a month.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: It's already here (and has been for years)

          I once built an automated test system which had a green start button and a red emergency stop button. The end user suggested it could be improved by using a latching emergency stop button, thus eliminating the green button. This was done.

          Sure enough, I was called out at 11p.m. because the operator had pressed the emergency stop button by mistake, and then could not figure out how to release it.

      2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Re: It's already here (and has been for years)

        How more convenient would it be if the toast and coffee start getting prepared the moment you wake so by the time you get to the kitchen they're fresly ready?

        I could do that now. The coffeemaker has a timer and putting the toaster on one would be trivial.

        I don't because robbing life of all mundane tasks would be a psychological disaster and philosophically abhorrent. And, good lord, aren't the wealthy (by which I mean anyone middle-class and up in the industrialized nations) fucking lazy enough already?

        Spend a minute in the morning putting bread in the toaster rather than on more online lumpeninfotainment. That's how you achieve "work/life balance" - by actually living your damn life.

    3. monkeyfish

      Re: maybe

      What are you talking about? We have fantastic batteries right now. It's just that as soon as the capacity goes up, so does the processing power and what we expect to do with it. How long would a palm pilot last if you connected to a modern battery from a note 3? Most of the year I'd bet.

      1. NumptyScrub

        Re: maybe

        quote: "How long would a palm pilot last if you connected to a modern battery from a note 3? Most of the year I'd bet."

        Actually, no. The Note 3 apparently has a 3200mAh battery, which certainly sounds like a lot. However a standard alkaline AAA is apparently 1200mAh, and the Pilot used 2 AAAs (or 2x 1200mAh). So the Pilot was designed for about 75% of the total battery capacity that the current Note 3 uses.

        The major recent battery advances are in the (lack of) memory and tolerance to changing duty cycles in rechargeable batteries, not necessarily in total capacity.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: maybe

          Er, no.

          The battery of a Note 3 is a typical lithium battery at 3.6V, 3.2AH. That is about 11.5WH. The two alkaline cells in the Palm are around 1.5V 1.2AH, for a total of 3.6WH, or more than three times less.

          Indeed, at the time the Pilot was a new product, AAA cells were usually rather less than 1.2AH.

          The energy density of a lithium cell is several times that of the same mass of alkaline cell, but not quite so impressive volume for volume as lithium is much less dense than zinc.

          However, lithium or NiMH, the cost of powering a robot butler using rechargeable cells is still prohibitive.

          1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

            Re: maybe

            However, lithium or NiMH, the cost of powering a robot butler using rechargeable cells is still prohibitive.

            Robot butler fans: Look for my "fission-powered robot butler" Kickstarter, coming soon!*

            *For the beta release, user must supply own fissile materials.

      2. Denarius Silver badge

        Re: maybe

        Disagree MoneyFish. Snapdragon and ARM processors use less power and get more grunt. Even Intel has made improvements. You miss a robots main energy requirement. Lifting itself requires for more energy than mere CPU cycles by orders of magnitude even if mostly constructed of carbon fiber. As for fantastic batteries now, I utterly disagree. Coming off a very low baseline, they have made major improvements. In terms of energy density and recharge rates battery storage is still magnitudes of order short of liquid hydrocarbons. Even flywheels are a long way short of hydrocarbons performance and much less portable.

    4. Random Coolzip

      Re: maybe

      Instead of thinking "better batteries" would should be working on "wireless power". Sure it's less efficient, but there's plenty of it about. We waste ~40% on transmission line losses, what's another 10% to jump the last few feet? No downtime to recharge, no diminished functionality due to low power, no complicated power management code/circuitry. I'm sure some bright spark will figure out how to make transmission coils out of carbon nanotubes that can be woven into carpeting or something, if we just throw some more money at the problem.

      1. Denarius Silver badge

        Re: maybe

        Yeah Random. Love the idea of living in a microwave. Makes getting the hots for someone have a whole new meaning. Mines the plastic wrap one covered in tinfoil.

    5. ben_myers

      Re: maybe (What about our dependence on fossil fuels)

      All this talk about technology that will continue to make our lives easier neglects one key point. All that technology is dependent on fossil fuels, which will only become more and more expensive unless we can figure out how to transmit and use that energy more efficiently. I would propose that fossil fuel may do for our use of gadgets what Malthus theorized about food supply and population growth.

      1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

        Re: maybe (What about our dependence on fossil fuels)

        Atoms. You can split them. You can fuse them. Energy is released. With the exception of the overly anxious and the very "special", everyone on this planet is aware that we have the technology to meet our energy needs for some time, but choose not to, because of the meddling influence of special interests.

        Fossil fuels are temporary. When the new surge of natural gas supplies in the US is gone, we'll see the pivot towards atomic power. In a goddamned hurry.

  3. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    "Telepresence robots." Hmm.

    A personal butler on demand in your home at a moments notice that you can switch off and can't trouser any valuables.

    Affordable because the person operating the controls is actually based in some 3rd world hell hole.

    Where they will stay.

    I sense a massive business opportunity for the right sociopath entrepreneur.

    1. auburnman

      Re: "Telepresence robots." Hmm.

      That actually sounds like something that could really improve the 3rd world if it was possible and done properly, but I think it would take a lot of capital. You'd have to put in the technical and social infrastucture to support this - fibre optic data links to control the robot, and at least basic clean food, water, education in English and literacy and housing for the servants. The incidental benefits to your chosen cheap labour country would be immense even before you gave them the opportunity to earn a salary many times higher than locally available.

      1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

        Re: "Telepresence robots." Hmm.

        "That actually sounds like something that could really improve the 3rd world if it was possible and done properly, but I think it would take a lot of capital. You'd have to put in the technical and social infrastucture to support this - fibre optic data links to control the robot, and at least basic clean food, water, education in English and literacy and housing for the servants. The incidental benefits to your chosen cheap labour country would be immense even before you gave them the opportunity to earn a salary many times higher than locally available."

        Not really.

        Something rather similar was happening in (IIRC) the Phillipines where families were supplying their children for CP over the 'net.

        If anything I would expect my suggestion to need much less bandwidth than that.

    2. Richard Taylor 2 Silver badge

      Re: "Telepresence robots." Hmm.

      I have to say that I have gone through butlers at a hell of a rate - just can't trust them to keep their hands of the little woman

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: "Telepresence robots." Hmm.

        You're not doing it right. The job of your butler is to service your "little woman" while you are out being entertained by your mistress. Unless you have a really large establishment, in which case he may delegate the job to the more presentable of the under-footmen, so that he may himself ensure that lady guests have a memorable experience during their stay.

    3. YetAnotherLocksmith

      Re: "Telepresence robots." Hmm.

      "As a security professional, I can assure you that whilst I can tell you the locks and safe were good, I can make no such assurance for your Robo-Butler. Which is how it was able to pick up the 400kg safe and deliver it to the waiting robot car outside while you slept, disabling the alarms and using the front door with the codes and keys you gave it."

  4. All names Taken

    Where the hell is my ROBOT butler?

    That is the point you see - cannot depend upon them one bit.

    Now underlings, wage slaves und untermenschen are far more reliable and are considerably less expensive to use, run and maintain. And one has legal protections too.

    No, until the costs and performance of robot butlers is at least 10% that of wage slaved robots I would rather stick with the humans ones we have at the moment,

    yours delightfully (and definitely not robotically)

    Lord Tywin of the 7 whatevers

    1. All names Taken

      Re: Where the hell is my ROBOT butler?

      Oi el reg?

      I can reply to my own post?

      1. Kubla Cant Silver badge

        Re: Where the hell is my ROBOT butler?

        Oi el reg?

        I can reply to my own post?

        The technical term is self-abuse.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Ah bless you Trevor. You've been reading those magazines from the 1950s again haven't you?

    That's the problem with our materialistic outlook. It promises so much and delivers so little.

  6. Captain Scarlet Silver badge

    true workstations - think Mac Pro

    I prefer to think of something in an actual computer case instead of a dustbin

  7. Do Not Fold Spindle Mutilate

    GM is recalling millions of cars because of faulty 50 cent ignition switch.

    Trevor is arguing that thin client will prevail but I am not so sure that it will happen quickly. If all things work correctly it may happen soon but if things are buggy and connections, files, phone calls, transactions are dropped, lost or unreliable then the fat client will continue. In general, with proper competition, software quality is getting better.

    The robot butler should not be made by GM which is currently recalling millions of cars due to a faulty ignition switch. It will be an interesting era when self driving cars (tired and drunk), trains (oil cars exploded killing many), and airplane (Malaysian airlines), start to be allowed or become required because of presumed better safety.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: GM is recalling millions of cars because of faulty 50 cent ignition switch.

      I'm not sure of the relevance - but anyway the ignition switch is not 50c, that's just the problematic spring.

      The fat client is only better than the thin client when there is no need for a network connection. That's likely to be the case for, for instance, CAD, but even there - I can't print without my network connection, and how do I save my files off-site?

      The parent post seems only tangentially related to the article and reads as though someone has just bought a GM car and is suffering buyer's remorse. Not only is no engineering product likely to be completely defect free, human beings very definitely are not. So what is exactly the point being made here?

      1. Do Not Fold Spindle Mutilate

        Re: GM is recalling millions of cars because of faulty 50 cent ignition switch.

        My apologies for not being clearer. Will you trust a robotic butler holding a carving knife to understand how to carve a roast without carving you? If voice commands rely on cell tower connections to a another site for processing what will happen when the connection is suddenly dropped like many current cell phone connections? The quality of products should slowly go up but it will not happen quickly the way Trevor is suggesting. I am not someone who bought a GM car but someone who bought a Ford Pinto with Firestone 500 tires many decades ago. While Ford's quality has gone up GM's seems to have gone down. As someone who has fought Oracle to try to get them to increase the quality of their software I found that "quality" was often only skin deep and not to be relied on.

  8. Jim84

    I think you can view this future already

    Upper middle class and Rich families in California all seem to have Mexican nannies/housekeepers.

    Robots will perahps eventually do this job, and will be cheap enough that even the 'poor' have them. This will be a big change for society. Probably as big as everyone being able to afford cars in the 20th century.

    Chuck in cheap Liquid Fluoride Molten Salt reactors for much cheaper energy (if the Chinese can get them working) and extended healthspans and lifespans (if Aubrey de Grey can get his SENS program working) and you have a very different future.

  9. Captain DaFt

    Where the hell is my ROBOT butler?

    Captain DaFt's laws of robotics:

    A robot capable of doing human labor would have to be human sized to use devices designed for a human.

    It will have to strong enough to perform tasks a human could perform. Eg: lift at least 50 pounds, have manipulators (hands) that can hold and handle items without crushing or dropping them.

    It must be robust enough to do the above without damaging itself, and agile enough to do it without overbalancing and falling over.

    It will have to be intelligent enough to carry out complex* tasks, recognize its owner, its owner's family members and friends, strangers**, and be able to recognize and respond to emergencies***. Not to mention recognize whether that item on the floor needs to either be fed, placed in the dishwasher, or the clothes washer, or the trash, or back on the shelf, or hidden discretely.

    It will have to have a battery life of at least 16 hours, and recharge in at least 8, and still be available for emergencies during recharge cycle.

    *Complex in this case means things like being able to fetch a beer for dad or mom, a soda for the kids, and not bring a bottle of catsup instead.

    ** In other words, recognize a burglar, and contact the police, instead of offering it a bottle of catsup.

    *** No fetching a bottle of catsup in response to a heart attack, and no calling 911 because its owner is out of toilet paper.

    It seems obvious now why I don't have a robot butler yet.

    Robot pets are a different story. Remove the cleaning part of a roomba, BOOM! Instant robot cat!

  10. ecofeco Silver badge

    Enhance life?

    "They look to technology to enhance quality of life, not as yet another means to be subservient to the workplace."

    Good luck with that. My experience has been that the IT's sole purpose to make things more complex and then make it even more complex.

    I have no doubt this is done by the tech geeks (and I is one) for job security, but it seems as if IT has been going backward for a number of years.

    1. Denarius Silver badge

      Re: Enhance life?

      @ecofeco: Yes, Yes, YES! UI design has gone to the dogs and touch devices are the worst of all. Things appear and disappear without warning or apparent cause, no obvious way to see what is running and the newer "protections" to storage mean it is getting harder to lift photos off ones phone even. Bring back the VT100 or a PC at least. As a digression, I do not see the PC going away simply because in Oz at least, high data charges make always online unaffordable. Slow links make the Google et al free storage useless. Sneakerrnet and local compute and storage will remain, at least in non-urban areas.

    2. James 100

      Re: Enhance life?

      In some ways, yes, things are more complex. My TV is more complex to operate than the TV I had 20 years ago - but that's because this one has a hundred times as many channels and DVR functionality built in. "Watch the news" involves a few extra button-presses - I have to switch on and dial in channel 501, or scroll through a menu - but recording the programme I'm watching right now involves one button and zero tapes, compared to all the fiddling involved in using a VCR - and pausing the programme I'm watching to answer the phone wasn't even possible in those days.

      Yes, my mobile phone is far more complex than the only one I'd used 20 years ago - but that one had a shoulder strap (it weighed 4.2kg!) and could only make or receive phone calls, nothing more - not even SMS. My smartphone takes an extra button press or two to make a call - but other buttons access email, the web, music, camera - all things that old handset could never attempt.

      I doubt we'll see a "robot" in the article's sense any time soon - more because it's not a good way to solve the problem than anything else. I don't need a six foot pseudo-person to operate my current vacuum cleaner: a tiny self-propelled vacuum like a Roomba will do that much more effectively.

      For now at least, we have a very long way to go in improving individual pieces of equipment before we need a full-on human replacement. Self-driving cars, a content-aware fridge (probably RFID-based), a smarter washing machine (maybe RFID again, to identify the clothes inside and appropriate cycle) ... once the Roomba can pick up dirty clothes and get them washed, while the fridge can tell me the milk's off and ask if I'd like the car to go and get more, do we need robot arms and legs involved?

  11. Snapper

    'Everyone' get one?

    I usually enjoy Trevor's article's, but this is a little too blue-sky for me.

    Only the very rich will be able to afford a 'butler' that represents what we understand as a servant. In any case, who will look after the Butler, plug it in, make sure it gets its 1000-shirt service? Can it trim a hedge AND iron a pleated silk skirt AND change the oil in the car AND make Lasagne AND darn socks, or will we need separate devices and where will we put them?

    As someone who can't spell ketchup pointed out above, the AI of a 'Butler' is going to have to be much, much higher than currently available if the little intricacies of life that a Butler needs to react to are to be handed over to it.

    Machines to do things we find tedious or difficult? We have those already in washing machines, dishwashers, car-washes, patio cleaners, cars, trains, planes, coffee-makers etc.

    Nah, give me micro-surgery robots that can repair things a human can't see, wearable health checks (nearly there) and collision-avoiding cars (nearly there). I don't think many people will find a 'Butler' helpful in the near future due to the limitations of the technology available, but what they will find useful is something that reassures them that they are well, being looked after 24/7 and safe.

    1. YetAnotherLocksmith

      Re: 'Everyone' get one?

      That last bit sounds like the 8th circle of hell. A robot to watch all you do and keep you safe and out of trouble? Sounds a bit too much like a 'slap drone'* for my liking.

      I don't want a robot car that monitors and reports all I do at all times, unless it had both as good a driving record as me and can actually take responsiblity in the event of an accident, such that I don't have to. Otherwise the only point is to have a backseat driver that will allow the fines & penalties to be posted directly.

      I don't want a robot nanny. Perhaps one night a week for the kids, but again, if it burns the house down, unlike the real baby sitter, who would get the blame, and, more importantly, would it react in a sane manor compared to the carefully chosen and vetted person (who I can at least converse with and determine emotional state, intelligence and so on) unlike the alien thing that an AI would be (which I assume would be programmed fully with 'Trust signals', empathy and comforting words, while only being a network outage or network intrusion away from being either inert or passively deadly, or even actively hostile.

      *If you don't know the reference, it means you have never read Iain M. Banks, and as such you are dead to me.

      1. Chizo Ejindu

        Re: 'Everyone' get one?

        Iain M. Banks is/was my favourite author, RIP. (although i could never get into Feersum Endjinn truth be told)

        Personally i would be very happy to live in a society run by benevolent AIs where, for all intents and purposes, everything you could ever want is free and there is a drone for everything. A couple of isses with that right now - we live in a scarcity-based economy which i cannot see changing in my lifetime and humans are far too arrogant, opinionated, self-absorbed, tribalistic, power-hungry, cruel and greedy to ever truly accept and embrace a Culture or Star Trek style post-scarcity society. IMHO of course :)

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