Future of housework 6 – bin night

This is a simple one – but, nevertheless I reckon it could be very useful.

Taking the bins out, and bringing them back in again, is a pretty simple task, one that children the developed world over are tasked with. It’s also a pain in the neck if it’s cold, raining, you’re away on bin night, or worst of all if you forget to take the bins out!

It’s a simple enough task, in fact, that it just screams out for a robot to do it.

The beauty of a robot wheelie bin – or a wheelie bin mover – is the simplicity of the task. While a full wheelie bin can be quite heavy, they don’t need to be moved in any particular hurry – in fact, you would want it to move very slowly for safety. There’s no need for complex hands, legs, or anything like that.

From a hardware engineering point of view, there would be a number of challenges, most notably whether the robotics would stay attached to the bin at all times, including when emptied into the truck, or would be physically separate. Achieving sufficient stability to avoid spillage would also be a challenge. But these are all likely to be fairly easily solvable. The Wheeliesafe electric bin trolley, indeed, solves many of the issues.

The software problems for the robot are the interesting ones:

  • to be able to navigate to a position where the truck can pick it up, possibly avoiding static obstacles
  • to detect obstacles moving into its path and stop immediately if such an obstacle is detected.
  • to open garage doors or gates and ensure that they are closed.
  • These all pose their own challenges, not least to ensure that any closed door is not left open, and particularly if you assume “dumb” infrastructure (such as existing electrically operated garage doors). But it seems to me that these are all solvable in the medium term.

    And it would be a fun engineering project!

    These high school kids have had a partial crack, but it’s not clear whether it’s simply a remote-controlled wheelie bin or truly autonomous. Using a solar panel to charge the bin is pretty smart.

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Now, anybody (with $17,000) can be a sniper

Warning: this post is about a new type of gun. I’ll explain what it is and how it works before discussing the moral questions it poses.

Firing a rifle accurately, even over relatively short ranges, isn’t easy. Firing a rifle accurately over long ranges takes a certain amount of talent and a great deal of practice.

Even when one has mastered the basic skill of getting the shot to travel on the initial trajectory you want it to go, over long ranges that’s not enough. Bullets do not travel like a laser beam; they follow a parabola due to gravity and aerodynamic drag, drag that varies according to atmospheric conditions. They are affected by the wind, too. All of this requires you to adjust your aim point. And, particularly if you’re like me in my few attempts at firing a rifle, your aim will wobble around a certain amount.

Not, apparently, with the Tracking Point rifle, (corporate site here) that uses a computer to compensate for all these things automatically.

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Future of housework 4 – kitchen robots

In Part 3, I noted that one of the most time consuming tasks in the modern kitchen is simply moving objects from place to place; the utility of high-performance but specialized kitchen tools is limited by the time it takes to retrieve them from the cupboard, set them on the bench, wash them, then put them away. Washing dishes may be mostly automated, but loading and unloading the dishwasher isn’t. And so on.

While better designed kitchens can help to some extent, we are probably reaching diminishing returns in that area. What is required is technology that can automate the process of moving kitchen utensils from place to place; for this, we turn again to the technology of robotics.

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Transit and driverless cars – a quick response

Self-described “transit geeks” from around the world are starting to think about driverless cars, and what they might mean for their vision of a less car-dependent world. Ron Kilcoyne, manager of a public transport system in Eugene, Oregon, has some interesting points to make, though not ones I would all necessarily accept.

I agree with one of his most fundamental points – that no matter how much more efficiently driverless cars will make traffic flow, conventionally sized vehicles carrying a single person can never be as efficient a use of space as bicycles, heavily loaded public transport, or pedestrians. But that doesn’t mean that current transit architectures will continue to make sense in a world where all motorized transport is controlled by computers rather than a person. While a detailed analysis of the possibilities would be a very large work and will undoubtedly be made to look foolish by history, there are some fairly obvious examples of how the relative advantages of transit, and transit modes, are altered by autonomous vehicles.

For instance, minibuses are not heavily used by public transit systems in most of the developed world – though they are ubiquitous in some parts of Asia. While transport unions and the taxi companies play some part in this, it’s basically a simple question of economics. If you have to pay a bus driver, you may as well pay for a bus that can take large numbers of people. If the bus driver is no longer part of the equation, smaller vehicles that match demand better, and allow more point-to-point runs, might make more sense.

Or, to take another example, if buses can run in tightly-spaced platoons, the capacity per unit of space advantages of trains are rather less compelling than they once were.

On the other hand, if mode-shifting becomes less of an issue, minimising congestion might well mean that transit of one form or another into really heavily trafficked areas – CBD’s, for instance – will become even more popular than it already is.

One thing’s almost certain. When they arrive, driverless taxis will render obsolete the irregular and minimally-patronized bus services of the outer suburbs catering for those too young, old, poor, or otherwise unable to drive themselves.

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Future of housework, part 3 – the kitchen I

As the statistics from part 1 showed, cooking is the most time-consuming part of housework. While cookery can undoubtedly be enjoyable, but for a lot of people, a lot of the time, it’s a routine chore that they would prefer to avoid, or at least minimize the time spent on the boring parts.

Outsourcing the work

And avoid it we have, to some extent. While there might be something to the claims that domestic kitchen technology has stagnated, we’ve collectively found an alternative – get somebody else with a spiffy commercial kitchen to do the work for us. The American Restaurant Association stated in 2000 that, on average, American adults ate out about 4.4 times per week, up from about 3.8 times per week in 1981. However, this perhaps exaggerates the extent to which home cooking has declined, as the most popular meal eaten out is lunch, usually a less elaborate meal than dinner in the USA and Australia. Meat and Livestock Australia reports that 9 out of 10 dinners are cooked at home, and 7 of 10 are prepared from individual ingredients at home.

The second way we’ve reduced our cooking efforts is through the use of more elaborately transformed ingredients. While frozen meals and canned soup have been around forever, even fresh foods are transformed in one way or another – trimmed of fat, marinaded in a variety of ways, fresh vegetables peeled and packed to put in the microwave. Even something as basic as lettuce now comes pulled to bits, pre-washed and mixed together to save a minute or two.

Recent gadgets – diminishing returns?
It’s not entirely true that there haven’t been any labour-saving devices in the kitchen since the 1950s. The double-sided electric “George Foreman” grillers are heavily promoted for the lack of additional fat they add to food. However, they grill meat far more quickly than a single-sided griller, and obviate the need to monitor and flip the meat over. More recently, the invention of the Nespresso coffee maker has meant that coffee (by most reports, pretty good to excellent coffee) can be made with virtually no effort.

All that said, it does seem that we are approaching diminishing returns on what additional “dumb” kitchen gadgets can do for us. One last remaining frontier is cooking appliances that will stir food for us during the cooking process; the Jamie Oliver Homecooker is horrendously expensive for an electric saucepan with a built-in stirrer, but the concept seems pretty sound to me.

The roadblock

In considering my own cooking, it seems that a lot of time is actually spent moving things from place to place – fetching ingredients from the fridge, implements from cupboards, the results to cooking devices of one kind or another. Crockery makes its journey from the cupboard to the kitchen bench or table, to the sink and/or dishwasher, and then back to the cupboard. “Dumb” kitchen gadgets can’t help with this, either; in fact, for smaller jobs it’s often easier to do so with a simpler manual tool simply because of all the peripheral moving things about required.

As such, I reckon big improvements in domestic kitchen productivity are going to come from innovations that can substitute for humans moving things around, and we’ll look at that in the next part of this series.

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Speculative future of housework part 2 – floors

The housework survey from the introductory post in this series didn’t break down cleaning tasks other than washing dishes. In my experience, keeping the floor clean is a not insubstantial fraction of that. But, perhaps, not for too much longer:

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A speculative future of housework – part 1 of a series

John Quiggin’s excellent essay The 15-Hour Week argues (to simplify what was already a somewhat hand-waving argument) that foreseeable economic growth and policy decisions distributing that growth evenly enough, the entire world’s population would need to work only 15 hours per week to enjoy a comfortable standard of living in perhaps 2060 or so. John Maynard Keynes’ economic Utopia,in Quiggin’s view, can be achieved. It’s an appealing vision – a heck of a lot more appealing than the endless exhortations from Labor Prime Ministers about the joys of hard work. So it’s worth spending a bit of time considering whether it’s feasible.
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