New Urbanist is a monthly column that explores how technology and design are changing our cities, homes, the built environment – and ourselves

New Urbanist: Home is where the robots live

A robot nurse needs to know how to find your bedside (Image: Francis DEMANGE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

An ageing population is finding itself without family or friends to provide the care that’s urgently needed. Fragile bones and fading memories don’t just present immediate health risks – they also mean that the elderly are often incapable of using the very buildings they call home. The residents have outlived the architecture, we might say.

Healthcare robotics companies are enthusiastically stepping into the breach, hoping to provide automated solutions and mechanical means that will allow the elderly to stay at home with safety and dignity. In Japan, since 2013, annual manufacturing subsidies in the tens of millions of dollars have been offered to help spur innovation in the field of domestic robotics. In the US, university labs and public-private partnerships are exploring how machines usually seen in factories might someday appear at our bedsides and breakfast tables. Around the world, a decision seems to have been made: we will turn to robots to help us when we get old.

Along the way, a somewhat disconcerting glimpse of our future homes comes into view, populated with wall-mounted prostheses, six-axis arms and algorithmically intelligent talking statues. This poses unexpected architectural problems. If we are on the verge of inviting a new generation of robots into our family homes to watch over the elderly, can we accommodate them? It’s time for architects and robot designers to collaborate.

If machines are to be our future roommates, then they will come with their own architectural needs. We cannot assume that today’s multi-floor suburban homes and walk-up urban apartments will also be appropriate homes for robots, with their non-human turning circles, power needs and alternative forms of navigation. Indeed, the rise of autonomous mobile machines, from self-driving cars to domestic service robots, promises to revolutionise how we think about and design our streets, cities and buildings – including who or what those spaces are built for in the first place.

Roomba rumba

In an age of robot vacuum cleaners, it might seem like machines already know their way around a home perfectly well. To most humans, the spatial logic of a modern domestic interior seems so obvious as to need no explanation. Not necessarily so for machines. Ask a robot to go back into your house to find a misplaced cane or some medication and the gulf between robot and house designs widens.

For John Rogers, a robotics researcher trained at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, nothing can be assumed. His research involves getting robots to understand how buildings work – and this means knowing what a room is, for example.

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