How to Design a Droid-Optimized Home

Robots can walk, talk, run a hotel … and are entirely stumped by a doorknob. Or a mailbox. Or a dirty bathtub—zzzzt, dead. Sure, the SpotMini, a doglike domestic helper from Boston Dynamics, can climb stairs, but it struggles to reliably hand over a can of soda. That’s why some roboticists think the field needs to flip its perspective. “There are two approaches to building robots,” says Maya Cakmak, a researcher at the University of Washington. “Make the robot more humanlike to handle the environment, or design the environment to make it a better fit for the robot.” Cakmak pursues the latter, and to do that, she studies so-called universal design—the ways in which buildings and products are constructed for older people or those with disabilities. Robot can’t handle the twisting staircase? Put in a ramp. As for that pesky doorknob? Make entryways motion-activated. If you want droids at your beck and call someday, start thinking about robo-fitting your digs now.

1. Wide-Open Floor Plan
Any serious sans-­human housekeeping needs a wheeled robotic butler with arms, Cakmak says. That means fewer steps, plus hallways wide enough for U-turns. Oh, and hardwood floors. Thick carpeting slows a bot’s roll.

2. Visual Waypoints
Factory robots work so fast in part because their world is highly structured—conveyor belt here, truck over there. So for your robo-home, create landmarks that anchor the bots in space—a promi­nent light fixture, say, that tells them, “You’re in the dining room.” (RFID tags will help bots locate smaller objects, like cleaning supplies.)

3. Right Angles
Imagine holding a ball between two textbooks. Because each surface touches the sphere at only a ­single point, it’s easy to lose your grip. Robots have the same problem and do better holding flat, boxy surfaces. Swap out rounded dishware for rectangular coffee mugs and square bowls. And use more plastic—there will be drops.

4. Button-Free Zone
Machines struggle to “see” buttons—to say nothing of pushing them. They’re much happier interfacing digitally with Wi-Fi-­enabled (and buttonless) coffee makers, stoves, and dishwashers.

5. Upsized Bathroom
Roomba-type bath­room cleaners can’t navigate spaces behind toilets or the graduated curves around sinks and tubs. And that step at the entrance to the shower (already a hazard to older people) is a barrier. Flatten the room and boxify toilet and tub.

6. Matte Materials
Depth-­perception sensors in robots wig out in the face of shiny or transparent objects, meaning your stainless-steel refrigerator and glass tabletops may have to go. Lock away fancy stemware in a humans-only cabinet.

7. Indoor Power Station
Just like architects design a nook for the refrigerator or stove, your robo-home will need space for a power-up station. Wireless recharging when the robot rolls up to the zone will make it more unobtrusive. Maybe right next to your Tesla Powerwall?

8. Doors 2.0
Since robots hate turning spherical knobs, install flat handles. Better yet, buy automatic doors that can be digitally triggered by sensors in the bot—and do the same with dressers and anything else that opens.

9. Trackable Humans
If you’d rather your dinner party not be interrupted, give bots permission to track your location via your phone or fitness wearable (“at table,” “by stove”). They’ll leave you alone through dessert.

10. Like by Like
With droids capable of feeding fresh clothes into a folding machine, there’s no need to monitor wash cycles anymore. Just locate the laundry room near your walk-in closet for maximum efficiency.

11. Gastrobotics
Bots won’t be cooking too many meals from scratch (and you can’t be bothered), so get a smart fridge they can stock with meal kits and a smart oven they can control remotely. Mmm—bot-made meals whenever you want.

12. Raised Garden
Solar-powered horticultural bots need plenty of sunlight and like their plants arranged in easy-to-navigate rows and columns. Put your garden on the roof, with a nearby shed to store your autonomous lawnmower.

This article appears in the January issue. Subscribe now.

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