Science fiction has been promising us robot butlers for decades — whether it's Rosey in the Jetsons or Robin Williams’s Bicentennial Man — but, despite all of humanity's breakthroughs, we are still waiting.
Now an alum of the world’s most famous AI lab appears to be close to making it happen. London-based Prosper Robotics — a startup founded by former OpenAI employee Shariq Hashme — is building a household robot that it hopes will be ready for market in the next couple of years.
Hashme says it’ll be able to load and empty the dishwasher, do your laundry, clean surfaces and floors and even prepare simple meals like salads.
Meet the robot
The robot runs on wheels (bipedal robots still don’t have balance reliable enough to deploy in a home) and has two arms that can be raised up and down to tackle different jobs. Its “hands” can pick up and put away things like plates and cutlery, as well as fold clothes and straighten the duvet on your bed.
Each version of the robot will also come with a box of "50-100 tools": things like suction cups for removing tricky tupperware lids or a specialised mop that fits the robot’s shape better than a human design.
It’s not without safety hazards, and one potential area for concern is meal prep — both hygiene and the fact that the robot can hold knives. But Hashme says the Prosper team has solved the hygiene issue by giving the robot different sets of “gloves” for different jobs to prevent cross-contamination (it also knows how to put the gloves in the dishwasher).
When it comes to knife wielding, Hashme says the robot will be kept away from people for now.
“You'll go to work and they'll do everything in your home. You'll have a little time lapse on your app on your phone, showing you what they did.”
Household chores at a household price?
Hashme tells Sifted that the big challenge in creating a viable household helper is creating something that doesn’t cost the earth while being able to perform a wide range of jobs.
Robots have been able to perform complex tasks for a long time, but the kinds of machines you find in high-tech factories often cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and generally specialise in one distinct task.
“The biggest thing that you need to do differently to make a home robot realistic is the cost of a system, so that's kind of the most exciting thing we've done,” Hashme tells Sifted, from his office that looks every bit the mad scientist’s workshop.
He explains that the Prosper team has done this by addressing issues that most robotics engineers don’t spend time thinking about — boring things like making off-the-shelf electrical connectors work in a moving system. Hashme says that, by applying 20-30 “tricks” like this, Prosper is planning to sell its robot butler for somewhere between £5k-10k.
Users of the Prosper bot will also pay a monthly subscription charge on top of that, which’ll cover maintenance, insurance and go towards paying real people who teleoperate the robot for some trickier tasks (making a salad is one example). These people will be paid by Prosper robotics and remotely control the robot via a VR interface.
To avoid some of the privacy issues related to the remote team seeing inside your home, the team has developed an interface that blurs out any text or human faces that the robot is looking at.
Involving some human control of the robot will accelerate its readiness to be deployed in people’s homes, Hashme says, as full automation is still some way off. This is partly because there’s just not much data out there to train a household robot on.
Unlike large language models like OpenAI’s ChatGPT, which are trained on vast amounts of human-generated text, robot butlers will need to learn from repeatedly doing the same tasks.
“An operator would have to do the task for the first, say, 10k times,” Hashme says, “And then after that we have enough data to do it automatically.”
The founder says that the newest version of this “first practical robot for the home” will hopefully be ready in around eight months, at which point they’ll start alpha testing it in early adopters’ homes.
“We have about 20 people who are ready to go,” he says, adding that he hopes this will lead to a market-ready version of the robot in around two years. The Prosper bot will also be marketed to offices, and Hashme says that might be a more natural first use-case for the technology, as offices are cleaned more regularly than homes.
He says that Prosper has so far raised a “small amount” of angel funding, while the founder has put in around £2m of his own money, which he’s hoping can sustain the company’s team of eight without needing to raise more VC cash.
Aside from freeing humans up from the boring bits of life we’d all rather not do, he also says that Prosper will have a positive social impact.
“Housework falls disproportionately on women in a lot of places,” says Hashme. “If you actually have a robot that can take care of a significant portion of that, that could end up being a big tool to help them free up their time and be more autonomous.”
Obviously a £10k price tag means Prosper’s robot is likely out of budget for most families’ Christmas lists, and will likely cause issues for people who work as cleaners in the immediate future.
But the company does seem to be bringing us closer to that Jetsons-like vision of the middle-class household of the future, as technologists chase the next big breakthrough in the convenience economy.