Is it wasteful to teach a robot to iron clothes?
Robotics is a growing field, and it’s good that it is growing. Robotics is key in making huge technological advancements to benefit the entire world. If you follow robotics news in mass media, though, you’ll mostly see robots designed to do frivolous things. You occasionally hear about a new robot designed to facilitate search and rescue in a hazardous environment, but more often you hear about a robot designed to dance, or bring you a toothbrush, or iron your clothes.
Ironing is something that we don’t really view as remarkable. In fact, many of us don’t even worry about ironing clothes. It’s a frivolous chore that we might do on special occasions to look our best. However, ironing is more involved than one might think.
It actually takes a bit of skill to iron clothing. It takes a steady hand and a delicate touch. You’re not trying to burn or pulverize the wrinkles out of your dress shirt. You have to apply a wispy cloud of steam and gently sweep the wrinkled shirt until the furrows melt away. You must be able to recognize where the wrinkles are, how to remove them, and actually remove them without damage to your garment.
A robot capable of successfully ironing clothes would have to be pretty advanced. It would require precise and controlled movements as well as visual recognition and computation. Would it be wasteful to put a sophisticated robot with those skills to a such a trivial task?
If you have a robot capable of ironing, it would be capable of much more than just ironing. It could use its skills for a more worthwhile task, something that could save or benefit lives in a way that’s more significant than saving 10 minutes on a luxury service.
However, some truly great discoveries that end up benefiting lives have come from other research. Sir Alexander Fleming wasn’t looking for penicillin, but he found it and humanity benefited greatly. We’re at a point in robotics where we can’t jump in and just make something amazing. We are learning and discovering. It’s easier to develop robots to do trivial things, but through the process we expose technologies. Those technologies can then be refined and applied to more worthwhile projects in the future.
You have to walk before you run, and robots are just now able to walk on their own. So while it might seem that we are wasting technology by teaching robots to iron our clothes or flip our burgers, we are really promoting technological advancements. The tasks might be frivolous, but the information we learn is essential.